As everyone knows from yesterday’s post (or the many, many news reports), JetBlue announced its long-expected service to London last week. There is a lot to unpack here, and fortunately I was able to get on the phone with Scott Laurence, JetBlue’s Head of Revenue and Planning, to try to get a better understanding of just what’s going on. In short, JetBlue has gotten its nose under the Heathrow tent, but it’s not guaranteed that it can stay. Gatwick is more certain, at least, and it will be a part of JetBlue’s London strategy for a long time. Stansted? Well, that remains to be seen.
Let’s start with the basics. Service begins August 11 with this roundtrip from New York to Heathrow:
- JetBlue 007 Lv New York/JFK 1010p Arr London/Heathrow 1010a (next day)
- JetBlue 20 Lv London/Heathrow 610p Arr New York/JFK 943p
Then it will be supplemented on September 29 with this rountrip to Gatwick:
- JetBlue 43 Lv New York/JFK 750p Arr London/Gatwick 755a
- JetBlue 44 Lv London/Gatwick 12p Arr New York/JFK 333p
Before we get into this further, I just have to congratulate the network team, because that is some strong flight number-game. The 007 on the way out — and it is written with the two zeroes, unlike the rest of the flights — is an obvious nod to James Bond. But the return from Heathrow is the telephone city code for London. The return from Gatwick is the telephone country code for the UK. And possibly my favorite in obscurity is the outbound to Gatwick. It turns out that 43 is the year London was founded. Love it. But I digress.
The Multi-Airport Strategy
JetBlue always knew that it would need to serve multiple airports in London, because the most popular ones are full. So it has devised this multi-airport strategy out of necessity. Here’s a look at London and all its airports.
The yellow dots are all the airports around town with commercial service while the green lines are train routes. Like the tube map, these are not actual track routings, and no, the Southend and Stansted trains do not merge. This is just an illustration so you can get the point.
Heathrow sits 15 to 20 minutes west of Paddington Station which makes it very convenient and easy to get into that part of town. Those who want to head into Canary Wharf or other parts on the other side of town, however, have not had much luck. That changes next year when the Elizabeth Line (also known as Crossrail) opens up. That will give single train service from Heathrow through town to Canary Wharf and Stratford. Heathrow is already the main business airport for long-haul, but this will cement it even further.
City airport is an afterthought from the US. It’s great for short-haul for those around Canary Wharf, but it has a very short runway and can only do niche flying to the US. Southend is also hardly worth discussing today. It’s a tiny little place that can be barely considered to serve London. Maybe someday it’ll matter, but for now, it’s just not there yet.
Luton is the least attractive of what remains. It doesn’t have direct rail service, so it’s a bus to a train. It’s also closer to Heathrow, meaning its catchment has less appeal anyway. The last two — Stansted and Gatwick — are the most interesting outside of Heathrow. Those three will form the pillars of the JetBlue London strategy.
Heathrow is Still Number One
As you can tell by that awful return time from Heathrow, JetBlue had to settle for something that’s far from desirable to get into Heathrow, but it still thinks it’s worth it. The eastbound flight is later than preferred by most Americans, and the westbound is just too late in general. It can’t even connect to anything once it gets back to the US. (Scott confirmed that the only connections they are actively selling are on JetBlue, not American, since JetBlue’s London flights are excluded from the Northeast Alliance.)
As bad as the schedule is, it’s even worse because JetBlue needs two airplanes to fly the route. When the plane gets back to New York, it’s too late to turn it back around. Scott brushed off the suggestion that this is an issue since the startup plan was always to have 3 airplanes fly 2 flights. This will just actually utilize the spare more, though it seems to me it could result in delays if there are mechanical issues on one airplane.
The bigger point, however, is that Scott doesn’t like the time either, and he feels confident that they’ll be able to get an earlier slot time for that return. The ideal slot would be a departure between 1pm and 3pm, but I think he’d be happy to find anything that would enable connections.
Even if that happens, it only gets us a few months down the road. Heathrow is full, but thanks to the pandemic and a slot waiver that allows airlines to not use slots without sacrificing their rights, JetBlue was able to get this slot for the IATA summer season which runs to October 30. Scott thinks the waiver will be extended through the IATA winter into late March, so that would mean the airline would likely be able to keep the slot. But then what?
Scott fully expects JetBlue will be able to stay at Heathrow, but it will have to find a way to stay in. The easy path is to just buy some slots on the open market, but those slots cost tens of millions of dollars. JetBlue has only 138 seats on these small airplanes, and it’ll be hard to make that money back from flying revenue. Still, he did say that they view the slots as appreciating assets. If you think of it as some kind of investment that will not lose value, then it’s easier to justify it to yourself, but you still need to part with a whole lot of cash.
What the airline is really focusing on is to get its hands on some so-called “remedy” slots where the competition authorities require divestment from existing airlines. Of course, it would be a cold day in hell before any US or British carrier turned a slot over to JetBlue there without being forced to do so. Scott thinks there’s a good chance of success since JetBlue is a disruptor that brings low fares, but I also see the other argument that a valuable Heathrow slot shouldn’t be wasted on a 138-seat airplane when it could be used by much larger aircraft heading to the US. JetBlue needs to have this resolved by the end of this year, roughly, so it can start selling tickets into the spring.
Gatwick is the Rock
Regardless of what happens at Heathrow, Scott believes that in the long term, “we’ll be in multiple airports. We think there is a market for Gatwick.” And I would agree that he’s right. There is a market for Gatwick as evidenced by all the airlines that fly there today, but it’s heavily swayed to UK point-of-sale.
On paper, Gatwick looks good. The airport has two fast train services that go to Victoria Station and London Bridge (and beyond up to Farringdon). There is a large population in that area, and easyJet has done well there. Wizz is thrilled to have made its way in there as well. The airport has a long history of low fare transatlantic service, and that brings me to…
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Does everyone remember Laker? This 1981 schedule from TheAirchive.net shows the airline’s flights from Gatwick to New York, LA, Miami, and Tampa.
Take a walk through TheAirchive.net to find all sorts of historical items, trip reports, memorabilia, and just random avgeekiness. Laker, of course, is long gone, but you’ll also find timetables and route maps from airlines like People Express and Dan-Air that touched down at Gatwick and gave it quite a colorful history.
And now, back to the story.
The problem is that most of that has melted away. Pre-pandemic, British Airways and Virgin had robust operations at Gatwick to serve leisure routes (including Florida and Las Vegas), but it remains to be seen what will survive the pandemic and actually return for those airlines. And of course, all that transatlantic flying by US carriers disappeared as soon as the open skies agreement allowed them to fly to Heathrow.
It can be argued that too much service to the US has disappeared from Gatwick, and JetBlue will try to test this theory. I personally agree. I was supposed to attend a wedding at Balcombe this summer, and Gatwick would have been so much better than Heathrow. Yes, I’m just one person — and the wedding has been postponed again thanks to COVID — but there has to be some demand there. We’re only talking 138 seats per flights, after all.
JetBlue is encouraged by early results. Scott told me that early bookings were “off the charts good” with what, to me, is a surprising point-of-sale split. It was early, but last week when the new service first launched, the breakdown was about 55 percent US and 45 percent UK. That bodes well for Gatwick success, because that is the airport’s base. If JetBlue can get a strong local split and if it can maybe cozy up with easyJet for connections — Scott said “…as schedules come back… we are very open to providing connectivity beyond Gatwick or Heathrow” — and it seems like Gatwick might be a solid option.
And Then There’s Stansted
JetBlue has acquired slots at Stansted as well, but Scott hardly seems as enthused about it today.
…we continue to look at Stansted. There’s value that has been unappreciated. You look at where there’s population growth, where tech is growing…. We have our eye on it, but I don’t think it’ll be in our initial tranche.
So, maybe some day? It’s just not as appealing as the other two, but if JetBlue can’t get what it wants at the other two, then maybe Stansted will look different.
JetBlue will launch Boston service next summer, and Scott says he hopes they can have Heathrow and Gatwick flying from there as well. How realistic that is remains to be seen, considering that Heathrow hasn’t even been secured from JFK for the long run yet.
Of course, we don’t know how well any of this will work at all since this is uncharted territory. A 138-seat A321LR flying to London? This will be a rather fun experiment to watch.