If ever there were a time to try something completely crazy in the route planning department, this is it. Rewriting the rules on where to fly or how to structure a route network can only really be done under great duress. And the industry today certainly feels that stress. As JetBlue restores its service levels it will bring back a number of previously trimmed routes. But it will also launch service in new markets, including several non-hub routes. The carrier sees an opportunity to do things differently and now is the time to try.
Coronavirus has transformed airline route maps, and as we begin to see small signs of recovery, we continue to be flexible with our network plans to respond to demand trends and generate cash in support of our business. We’ve selected routes where customers are showing some interest in travel again and where our low fares and award-winning experience will be noticed.– Scott Laurence, JetBlue’s head of revenue and planning
Better than a grounded fleet
Between July and October JetBlue will restore or add 30 domestic routes, heavily focused on the “VFR” (visiting friends and relatives) market. VFR traffic is core to JetBlue’s operations normally, so that part is not particularly new. But adding so many routes focused on that market is. In recent months the airline had been working towards increasing relevance in the business traveler segment. But business travel recovery is far less likely in 2020. With so many planes and crew currently grounded the goal is to get back into the skies, with “the opportunity to generate revenue, bring aircraft back into service that would otherwise sit idle, and add more flying opportunities for JetBlue crewmembers.”
New routes often take a while to mature and generate sufficient revenues. That is typically easier in markets that an airline already has established service. JetBlue can only build so much from its existing hub network, especially with traffic demand generally still down 50-70% from 2019 levels.
Operating routes from non-hub airports increases complexity for fleet and crew scheduling. It creates slightly greater risk with respect to irregular operations and recovery costs. But the competition is also weakened and now is the time to at least try the new markets.
Moreover, because the comparison is against a grounded fleet the threshold for what makes sense to fly is lower. This allows JetBlue greater financial flexibility in choosing less-than-traditional routes for its network. The significant number of non-hub routes that will fly this Summer shows that the carrier is willing to exercise that flexibility.
Taking Mint to the Competition
While the bulk of the Summer route expansion might be focused on VFR traffic, JetBlue picked a few business-focused routes to restore/expand first. And five years after launching its Mint business class offering in the transcon market from JFK it is bringing those planes across the Hudson River to Newark, where it will compete head-to-head with United Airlines. JetBlue will fly up to 3x daily to Los Angeles and up to 2x daily to San Francisco from Newark with its premium product.
In normal times that low frequency would look outright anemic compared to the nearly hourly service offered by United crossing the country. But these are not normal times. United only has a handful of flights crossing the country each day in July. JetBlue’s capacity does not look quite as miniscule in comparison. And JetBlue needs to do something with the Mint aircraft. Transcon markets are the sweet spot and Newark opens up options for the carrier. As an added bonus, JetBlue can put some pressure on Alaska Airlines that also still runs a few transcon frequencies to Newark.
By early August JetBlue will be flying an additional 10x daily flights out of Newark to seven more cities. Charleston (CHS), Jacksonville (JAX), Sarasota (SRQ), and San Diego (SAN) will each receive a daily flight. Phoenix (PHX), Las Vegas (LAS), and Austin (AUS) will grow to two daily flights. JetBlue has competed out of Newark with United for years, but far more heavily focused on Florida and Puerto Rico. These new flights dramatically expand the footprint for Newark customers and could let the carrier erode some of United’s domination in its NYC-area hub.
A focus on Florida
Shuttling people into and out of South Florida is arguably one of JetBlue’s strongest plays and the new schedule looks to capitalize on that. Tampa, Palm Beach, and Fort Myers are not JetBlue hubs but the carrier delivers significant passenger numbers to those markets. And now it hopes to do so from new points across the northern part of the country. Philadelphia – an American Airlines stronghold – is the target for much of the growth in August. Orlando, Palm Beach, For Myers, San Juan, and Tampa all see routes added from 6 August. LaGuardia will also add flights to Tampa and Fort Myers.
In October the Florida growth continues. Fort Myers will add flights to Cleveland (CLE) and Providence (PVD). Tampa will connect to Providence and Washington, DC (DCA). Palm Beach will see service to Chicago (ORD) and Pittsburgh (PIT).
The October expansion also brings some longer-haul markets to life from the Florida hubs. From Fort Lauderdale JetBlue will daily add service to Pittsburgh as well as 2x weekly flights to Portland, Oregon and 3x weekly to Seattle. From Orlando the carrier will add a daily flight to San Francisco.
The company is under no delusions that these new routes are certain to deliver success. Head of revenue & planning Scott Laurence believes “These new routes are a win for customers, and we believe they will work especially well for us in this unique environment.” But the company also calls out in the press release that the “routes will be regularly evaluated” and that it will use “market demand to determine how long a particular route continues to operate.” While that is always the case for all routes it is rare to see an airline so bluntly call attention to that part of its planning operations.
This is very much JetBlue giving a few new things a try and hoping the numbers work out. And given what it is comparing against, the potential for success is pretty high.
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