During the summer of 2019 JetBlue experimented with a new catering process that shifted the cart loads and allowed the company to restock planes less frequently. With nearly 120 test flights complete the company is declaring victory and moving forward with the plan. Before the end of the year expect to see catering trucks visit some JetBlue planes half as often. The news was confirmed by VP Inflight Ed Baklor in an internal video message shared with flight attendants this week.
The current program sees every aircraft restocked when it visits a hub/focus city. Under the new plan that will shift to every other visit. This new scheme applies “only for certain short- and medium-haul flights, and does not affect Mint flights (or any longer flying like transcon),” according to a company statement. The company also points out its commitment “to ensuring our flights are stocked with the free snacks and drinks that our customers are looking for and that help set the JetBlue experience apart.”
The company did not provide specifics on which routes will be affected by the change while confirming that it is coming. The new process is expected to roll out in the next month or so.
Baklor is confident that the plan can work based on his experience implementing a similar program at WestJet. Here’s how he explains it to crewmembers in the video (transcript trimmed slightly for clarity):
We’re going to be making some moves to our catering process. Now I know some of you may have read that we’re cutting catering. [That’s] not really the case. So let me try to explain a little bit more about what we’re doing and this is something that we did at West jet. So I’ve experienced this and I know it works. Please – and I know many of you know this as well from your other airlines – but please trust that there’s a lot of work that’s gone into this and we’re not just cutting something out. …
[T]oday JetBlue caters every other flight. So we cater a plane, it goes out to a destination and it comes back and it gets re catered. We take all those carts off and put all new carts on. That means that every other flight there’s a catering truck coming up and that’s a risk of aircraft damage, which is a safety issue. That means that many of us have often wound up having to wait for, you know, we want to close the doors and want to start boarding, but I’m waiting on catering.
Imagine if we were only catering every fourth flight instead of every other flight and we weren’t coming up to the airplane that often. So we have a safety improvement. We have an on time performance improvement. Yes, it does save costs. That’s one of our keys to success, one of our strategies, but also it’s not gonna happen without setting all of us up for success.
And that’s why we did such extensive tests. We went through and we tested this and I’m going to read you a couple of the comments. Many of you couldn’t believe how much faster we could turn the flights in those tests because we weren’t waiting on catering for that second flight, we were waiting until four flights before we set this up. But again, we had 200 snacks left on board, 200 snacks left on board after four flights, 170 sodas after four flights, 109 juices and 15 of these large bottles of water that we keep talking about were still left on that flight after four legs.
So if you think about that, why wouldn’t we do this to improve safety improvement on time performance, set ourselves up for success again, not let us run out of things and save money and again, having that room on the airplane for what else we’re going to need on the airplane as we start flying to Europe? So all of this is built up for a broad strategy as we go forward.
Bring on the data
Driving the shift is access to more and better data about how products are consumed on board. We’ve heard for years how data can help airlines optimize every facet of their operations and now JetBlue appears to be putting some of that into play. In 2018 JetBlue transitioned from “topping off” carts to full swaps on turns. The new process was not without its challenges, but it improved the data collection process around take rates for the various snacks and drinks stocked on board. That data was not available with the prior setup. With the new data available and analysis ongoing the company is confident that it can succeed with this transition. And it intends to get even more granular with the efforts, “[O]ver time we will be able to use this data to tailor our catering supply all the way down to specific routes – ensuring we have the right amount and mix of products based on historic usage. As you might imagine, some items are more popular on certain routes than they are on others.”
Working with that data – and responding to shortcomings – will be critical for the company to succeed with this effort. In comments associated with the test program some crewmembers reported flights running out of supplies, creating a tough situation for the front line. One crewmember that participated in the tests described the results as horrible, with “So many complaints and disappointment from Mosaics on board because I could not offer them their 1st, 2nd or sometimes even 3rd drink choice. We ran out of so much product by leg 3. We weren’t even catered ice for these legs and had to give customers warm beer. It was embarrassing and definitely a ‘just alright’ airline thing to do.” The “Just Alright” phrase is a reference to the company’s new ad campaign in which it touts its willingness to do more than other carriers to woo passengers.
Other flight attendants commented that the JetBlue catering is far more substantial than other carriers’ today, implying that trimming it back could be accomplished without losing passenger loyalties. Of course, that plays into the “Just Alright” challenge the carrier faces as it works to trim costs while also delivering a differentiated economy class travel experience.
Citing reduced catering visits to the planes as a safety improvement may technically be accurate, but it is unlikely to be seen that way by many crewmembers nor by passengers if their choice of beverage runs out. Similarly, reducing the catering trips can improve on-time performance, but so can increasing the catering staffing to ensure that the trucks meet the planes on time, even with flight delays, gate swaps and the other vagaries that affect operations. JetBlue must walk a tight line with the changes as it continues to push its customer-focused offerings while also trimming costs to satisfy Wall Street.
Positioning the move only for certain, shorter routes should help address many of these concerns, assuming the data is sufficiently accurate and the company remains flexible in responding to shifts in demand.