When will we finally know JetBlue‘s plans with respect to long-haul flying? Soon! Company CEO Robin Hayes recently informed employees of a New Years’ resolution for the company: A decision on the A321LR in 2019.
The message, sent on December 31st, calls out the LR decision as a top priority for the year and also notes that JetBlue will begin to receive the first of its A321neo aircraft this year, before that decision is made.
In 2019 we will announce our decision on the Long Range version of the A321. This aircraft could open up new and exciting markets for us. Our network strategy is about strengthening our focus cities and in order to fly to some of the top unserved destinations from Boston and New York (like London), we need a longer range aircraft.
The company first teased the possibility of converting orders to the LR model in mid-2016. That’s eons ago in airline route planning. And the story remained relatively consistent over that time. Should the company determine that the aircraft and landing slots can better used on transatlantic operations than growing the domestic market then that’s where they’ll end up. So, why take years to get to that decision when multiple other airlines managed to launch transatlantic operations in the interim?
Low cost airlines that have started transatlantic service in the time JetBlue has pondered it:
Norwegian Wow Primera Level Eurowings Westjet Joon
Part of it can be blamed on Airbus and Pratt & Whitney. The new aircraft have not entered service as smoothly as desired, with engine issues among the challenges. JetBlue chose in early 2017 to defer three A321neo family deliveries originally set for 2018. Those frames were delivered instead in the classic engine option configuration. That reduced risk significantly, a move the company called “prudent” and “good contingency planning” at the time. Those first three would not have been the LR model anyways; that configuration only finally began deliveries late in 2018 with Arkia Israeli Airlines taking the first such frame. But it has slowed JetBlue’s LR play.
A roughly 12-18 month lead time from Airbus on converting from an A321neo to A321LR also limits the company’s ability to execute on the A321LR plan quickly. JetBlue expects 13 new A321neo frames in 2019 and another 15 in 2020. At this point it appears the 2020 deliveries are the first that could even potentially be considered for the A321LR layout. But 2020 also marks the beginning of the A220 era for the company, with five aircraft expected. Launching both new products in the same year would be a significant challenge and executive repeatedly stated that the A220 program (replacing the E190s) is more important to get right.
Does that push the A321LR out to 2021? And, if so, does that really affect JetBlue’s odds of success in the Transatlantic market or does it just mean we have to hear two more years of teases about the service?
Separately from the when question is the where question. London is the largest market from Boston that JetBlue does not serve today. And it is a huge market. But where will JetBlue land? Heathrow was teased in a recent video, albeit indirectly. That’s also the most expensive airport in London to operate at. Landing slots for the desirable morning arrival bank are anything but cheap and JetBlue will be operating one of the smallest planes across the Atlantic by seat count (assuming a configuration relatively similar to the existing Mint A321s). Amortizing slot costs as well as landing fees and other ground handling expenses across fewer seats places the profitability of the route at a greater risk.
JetBlue also operates far more of its traffic on a point-to-point basis rather than on connections. This is likely to continue on the European service, regardless of which London airport the flights arrive at. Choosing an alternate facility would reduce passenger wait times and potentially even score airport development funds for the route launch, at the expense of being in the big name airport.
It is always about the money, of course. JetBlue believes the premium cabin market across the Atlantic is ripe for disruption. The carrier wants to slash fares the way it did with Mint on domestic transcon service a half decade ago. Of course, the market has not been kind to other carriers that sought to pick up “stray” premium cabin fares from London to New York City. History is littered with those efforts. JetBlue brings some advantages in terms of existing market size and overall airline stability, but that’s no guarantee of success.