American Airlines and JetBlue are to launch a “strategic partnership” in Boston and the New York City area, aligning flights and loyalty program benefits to boost their recovery. The carriers promise a “seamless experience” with “convenient connections and an improved on-the-ground experience – resulting in a compelling proposition for both leisure and corporate customers.”
American is using the partnership as a catalyst to launch flights from JFK to Athens and Tel Aviv in 2021. It will also bring back daily service to Rio de Janeiro. Clearly it sees feed from the JetBlue JFK operation as helping to grow its international presence. These are the first “long-haul international flights” it has added in JFK over 4 years. For its part, JetBlue indicated it will be “adding flights at LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark (EWR), while also increasing its presence at JFK for seamless connections to American’s expanded international network.”
The two also hype the potential loyalty program benefits, “JetBlue and American loyalty members will also enjoy new benefits while the carriers are exploring additional premium experiences for customers.”
At first blush this all reads as generally positive. More options for customers and frequent flyer reciprocity should be welcome news. Following the recent draw down in services the return to previous network levels will be a multi-year process. Accelerating the regrowth is great. But there are scant details available on how that will come to pass.
A huge boost to the JetBlue operation
Make no mistake: JetBlue intends for this partnership to deliver significant growth (or at least recovery) to its NYC and Boston operations. In an internal memo reviewed by PaxEx.Aero the company indicates that it could drive the return of as many as 40 aircraft to service in the near term recovering nearly 25% of the total grounded fleet from earlier this year. But the logistics of delivering that are difficult.
That cannot happen at LaGuardia without additional slots. JFK is similarly constrained. Newark is not slot-restricted but it is limited for new operations, effectively delivering the same challenge. So will American cede slots to JetBlue for this expansion? If so, the companies are not willing to talk about it yet. An American spokesperson informs PaxEx.Aero, “We are not getting into the specifics of this deal” while a JetBlue spokesperson calls out “multiple avenues for growth” that the company is exploring. There is some discussion about swapping slot timings according to Cranky Flyer, but that’s not how operations will expand.
Also at question is where JetBlue will focus this expansion. The release mentions “strategic markets on the East Coast, West Coast, and in the Southeast.” These are not the key business markets where the company lags from New York City today.
Loyalty to whom?
Similarly, the idea of improved frequent flyer benefits could shift some traffic towards the pair of airlines. For a loyal JetBlue customer flying a route the company doesn’t serve perhaps the points will make American a more compelling option. Ditto the other direction. Again, however, details on what the relationship will include remains unclear. JetBlue is “exploring loyalty program benefits” and expects to share more in the coming weeks.
JetBlue partnerships historically have been notoriously weak on frequent flyer program integration. That the two companies are even talking about it gives some hope that this time will be better. But the TrueBlue program is fully revenue-based while AAdvantage is not. Integrating the two in a manner that is useful to members of the “other” program will prove a difficult challenge.
What does seamless look like?
A seamless experience for passengers is far more than booking codeshare flights on either website. Indeed, the codeshare often hides what turn out to be very different levels of service on the airlines. JetBlue offers free snacks and WiFi on board, for example. And in-seat IFE screens across its entire fleet. American does not. How will passengers reconcile those differences as part of the “seamless” travel experience?
Similarly, connecting between a JetBlue and American Airlines flight at JFK is anything but seamless or convenient. Only TAP and Aer Lingus offer convenient connections in T5 today. And that is not going to change. For the AA-JetBlue passengers bags will be checked through now, which is a nice improvement. But travelers must change terminals and re-clear security. That will still be the case even after the JFK terminal updates happen (assuming they still happen) in the coming years.
Crew Concerns, too
Not surprisingly, the American Airlines unions are questioning the deal as well. The Allied Pilots Association points out that JetBlue pilots secured a no-furlough deal while thousands of its members could potentially be displaced later this year. Transitioning flying and feed to an outside airline rarely goes over well in the contract negotiations and follow-up.
With so many details missing and so few answers available from the company it is hard to predict how this ultimately plays out. Can AA convert its transcon service to a corporate shuttle while JetBlue is stuck with more economy seats than AA operates (also mentioned in the Cranky interview)? Given how well the Mint product performs it might not be smart for AA to entice passengers to try the competition there.
And there is a somewhat decent collection of historical references about airlines operating large long-haul gateways that depends on partners for feed. Those typically have not ended well. Especially not when the partner feed is not covered by a joint venture agreement for revenue sharing and antitrust immunity. JetBlue is not joining those programs with American and still intends to launch its own service to London and beyond, next year(ish). Even American’s west coast moves with Alaska Airlines feeding long-haul at Seattle and LAX are risky, and that’s with Alaska’s intention to join the Oneworld alliance accelerating.
I’m far more skeptical about the value of this announcement to passengers or to the airlines than most everything else I’ve read about it today. Maybe that’s just because the airlines aren’t giving any useful answers to questions posed. Or because too many similar deals have ended poorly over the years. Or because even these two managed to take a mediocre partnership at the beginning of the prior decade and let it flounder.
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