New seats, new screens and more live television took flight this week on one JetBlue A320. The new interior is officially in service. Some three and a half months after the first aircraft ferried to Greensboro, North Carolina the plane is officially back on the the schedule. It flew a couple dozen flights as an operational standby after leaving maintenance on April 13, 2018.
JetBlue’s A320 cabin restyling marks the first major overhaul of the fleet since launching in 2000. For most of the airlines 101 destinations the A320 restyling will bring the first upgraded JetBlue product to their city in nearly 20 years. It also brings 12 additional seats to each aircraft, fulfilling a promise made years ago to Wall Street to incrementally grow capacity at a relatively low cost.
The full A320 fleet is slated for retrofit, split into two phases with different configurations. “Phase 1” covers this first aircraft and another dozen to be retrofit in 2018 into early 2019. The shift to Phase 2 was expected in Q3 ’18 as of last November. That date slipped into early 2019 with the latest round of plans. The full retrofit process will take three years, with aircraft being updated as part of their regularly scheduled heavy maintenance checks.
Phase 1: A very good place to start
In Phase 1 the aircraft receive the Rockwell Collins Pinnacle seat, the same as that installed on the carrier’s A321 aircraft. The seats include 10.1″ screens and 100 channels of live television plus on-demand programming. New overhead bins and LED lighting are on board as well.
Power outlets are also part of the design, as is a water bottle holder at every seat. So is the Space Flex v2 galley/lav combo that the all-economy A321s fly with. It is a favorite of neither the crew nor passengers but it allows for the extra rows of seats to be added to the aircraft. Delays in the delivery of these modules are one of several reasons the project is years behind schedule.
Of note, the last row on board is window-free. That’s bad news for travelers.
— Adrian Leung (@Carfield76) May 3, 2018
While The 2018 retrofit brings a significant upgrade to existing cabins, it is also just interim design. The full suite of design improvements does not arrive until 2019.
Phase 2: Where the good stuff comes alive
The 2019 iteration of the cabin – named “Phase 2” by the carrier – delivers a step change forward for JetBlue. The seats will be the new Meridian product from Rockwell Collins. Among other things, Meridian promises the widest seat on the market, though most of that comes from a narrower armrest. Southwest Airlines is the launch customer for Meridian on its newer 737s; the A320 version flying on JetBlue will be even wider thanks to the aircraft’s larger fuselage.
The seatback power outlets will move to be passenger-facing rather than mounted on the seat leg beneath the passenger. The pockets will also change with a mix of mesh, a traditional pocket and an “innovative elastic stowage solution” that looks an awful lot like the Cocoon Grid-It system. The flexibility of that design – including keeping everything visible to reduce items lost in the bottom of the pocket – appears to be a solid improvement in seatback stowage design.
Finally, the IFE/C system also receives a significant upgrade in the 2019 restyling. Thales will provide its top-end, Android-based AVANT entertainment system on board. The 100 channels of live television remain, augmented by an expanded on-demand service featuring podcasts, gaming, audiobooks and more. The armrest remote control (and annoying, neighbor elbow-induced channel changes) will disappear as part of this upgrade; the new kit is fully managed via a touch-screen interface. The AVANT system was a late shift from the originally announced plan. JetBlue initially planned for the upgraded version of the current LiveTV kit, STV+, but Thales failed to deliver that offering.
The Phase 2 retrofit also delivers upgraded inflight wifi connectivity hardware to the aircraft. The carrier confirmed last November that it would upgrade the A320 family aircraft to the latest antenna and modem combination for support of the ViaSat-2 satellite. The new satellite offers a significant boost in available capacity and, more importantly, service coverage throughout the Caribbean and Mexico. Nearly all JetBlue routes will be in the coverage area once the new hardware is on board. As the new hardware is installed Jetblue will transition primary responsibility for the wifi service from Thales to Viasat. This is mostly a back-office logistics issue but it could impact passengers if the portal setup is poorly implemented in the transition.
The company, unfortunately, remains quiet on exactly what that deployment schedule looks like. The A321 aircraft are expected to get the new hardware and the Phase 1 aircraft hopefully also receive it eventually, even if they keep the seats and IFE from Phase 1. JetBlue did not respond to multiple requests for clarification on this issue.
Worth the wait?
The new on board product – especially in the Phase 2 restyling – gives JetBlue a big boost in passenger amenities. And it is significantly different from the original plan announced in November 2014. Many of the changes benefit passengers:
- AVANT over LTV4/STV+
- Better power outlet location
- Updated seatback pocket design
- Only 12 extra seats instead of 15 (grading on a curve for this one)
- Power ports in the galley for crew
Some of these changes would not fly were it not for the delays from Thales and Zodiac. That’s arguably good news for passengers. It is less clear if the delays are good for the airline. Wall Street wanted and expected the additional seats to be flying more than a year ago. And the investors are generally less forgiving than passengers.