After years of speculation, teasing, and more than a little free media coverage helping to market service that won’t begin for some time yet JetBlue appears poised to finally announce its plans to serve Europe this week. Wednesday’s event will also presumably confirm the conversion of a portion of the A321neo order to the A321LR model. And, if things go as rumored, we should also get details on the next generation of the Mint premium class cabin.
In its 2018 annual report JetBlue included an update to its order book with Airbus. The eleventh amendment to the order, dated 31 December 2018, is redacted owing to its commercial sensitivities. It most likely serves as the notice to Airbus that some upcoming deliveries will be converted to the A321LR. That order conversion starts the clock on when JetBlue can expect to see the new aircraft configuration in its fleet. The timing also makes a bit of sense given the internal memo circulated at JetBlue on December 31st indicating that an announcement would be made in 2019 regarding the A321LR.
Read More: JetBlue’s A321LR plans: Coming soon(ish)!
With the order updated and the A321LR likely confirmed thoughts turn to the aircraft interior layout. The Mint business class offering would be a relatively strong competitor on the Transatlantic routes in its current state. But the product turns five this year; a refresh would not be out of line. The Mint cabin also lacks direct aisle access for all passengers. Combine that potential with some comments heard on the show floor at Aircraft Interiors Expo 2019 in Hamburg last week and it seems that a new Mint seat is likely in the offing.
What will the seat be?
The “Butterfly” seat offers the ability to sell either a pair of premium economy seats or a single business class seat in the same space. It is a fun and award-winning concept but is unlikely to prove compelling for the business traveler segment JetBlue needs to make the routes profitable. The new Settee Corner seat from Airbus, designed with Geven specifically for the A321LR delivers similar cost and space savings as the Butterfly but only accommodates a single traveler rather than delivering the flexibility for two. It also likely comes up short on delivering the true flat bed experience JetBlue will need for Mint v2.
JetBlue has a strong relationship with Thompson Aero and appears satisfied with the Vantage seat in the current Mint cabins. Extending that relationship with the Vantage Solo seems a viable option to deliver the density and comfort JetBlue wants while also not walking away from a strong partner.
JetBlue was first to put the Vantage seat on a single-aisle plane and could continue its role as an innovator with Thompson by being first with Vantage Solo, too. The design appears to support a door at every seat with a small bit of work.
The new A321LR planes also feature the Airbus Cabin Flex layout with a smaller exit door just in front of the wing. That adjustment could allow JetBlue to increase the Mint cabin from the 16 seats it flies today.
Where and When?
What airports the company will fly to also remains an open question. Securing slots at Heathrow is not easy, though JetBlue recently made some noise about remedy slots and trying to force those previously allocated to Flybe away from Virgin Atlantic; the latter purchased the assets of the former earlier this year. JetBlue believes Delta (via its ownership stake and joint venture play) will soon control those slots.
The Department’s previous ATI grants to Delta-Virgin Atlantic and for the oneworld joint venture both explicitly relied on legally-binding slot remedies to satisfy competition concerns, particularly in the Boston-London and New York-London markets. Yet the record in these proceedings has no information regarding how these slot remedies have worked, how the slots have been used previously, and where the slots are being used today. This is complicated by the fact that Delta is now seeking to obtain remedy slots previously allocated to Flybe.JetBlue in a DoT filing on 31 January 2019
Timing on the A321LR launch will be tricky. The carrier previously indicated that getting the A220s into service was the top priority into 2020. It also has to deal with the lead time from Airbus on converting the aircraft and from suppliers to ensure that the seats, galleys and other bits are all available. The timing of the contract details in the 10-K filing matters greatly on those fronts.
JetBlue will also need to demonstrate ETOPS compliance in order to operate the routes, similar to the work Southwest Airlines performed prior to launching Hawaii service in March 2019. The carrier does have a limited ETOPS version in place today for some Caribbean routes but the TATL operation will require a notable upgrade to that process.
Given those requirements it seems unlikely that JetBlue will operate flights to Europe before late 2020 or early 2021. Launching in the slower winter season presents economic challenges to the new routes.
The route launch is complicated by news out last week that Delta and Virgin Atlantic intend to start service to London’s Gatwick Airport from Boston and JFK in 2020. Flight timing, aircraft and other details remain scarce, but the announcement adds even more capacity into a market that is already rather crowded and one where JetBlue will be flying the smallest aircraft by a wide margin. The Delta/Virgin Atlantic announcement could also be seen as targeting Norwegian; the long-haul LCC flies both routes already.
The Boston-London route sees eight daily flights in Summer 2019; the additional Gatwick service makes that nine daily. British Airways offers three 777s and one A380 each day with more than 250 premium cabin seats combined. Virgin Atlantic and Delta combine for a trio of A330s with another 130 premium seats. JetBlue is likely to have ~16-20 such seats on board. Unlike in the US domestic transcon market where JetBlue quickly ramped up to deliver the second most ASMs on LA-JFK it stands no chance of reaching the milestone in the London markets.
It can still compete, of course. But the other carriers are not going to take a new, price-cutting competitor lightly.