First look: What Breeze Airways, the new airline by JetBlue founder David Neeleman, brings to the skies
It took a while, but Breeze is finally flying.
The new startup airline from serial aviation entrepreneur David Neeleman — the founder of JetBlue — made its first flight today after years of waiting and speculation.
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The airline, which had originally been codenamed "Moxy" back in 2018, plans to connect midsized markets with nonstop flights, focusing on cities that are too small for major carriers to serve beyond flights to their hubs.
The carrier will phase in 39 new routes across 16 cities between today and the end of July.
Most of the routes will be concentrated around four focus cities: Tampa; New Orleans; Charleston, South Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia.
But there’ll be a handful of flights outside those cities – so called “point-to-point” routes like Hartford to Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh to Providence.
David Neeleman is many things, but all of his hats are dwarfed by his biggest role: salesman.
Say what you will about the man's business plans and airline network models (which have all been highly successful), his ability to sell new routes, service and destinations is the ultimate secret to his success.
That's why, as crazy as it seems to launch a new airline during the pandemic, Breeze has attracted a great deal of excitement — arguably more than its peer startup Avelo, which launched last month in Burbank, California.
Breeze's inaugural flight departed at 10:30 a.m. ET on Thursday from Tampa to Charleston, South Carolina.
Airline inaugurals — whether for new routes, new planes, or new carriers — tend to feature considerable pomp and circumstance at the gate. While the pandemic has dampened the tone of the festivities over the past year, there was no shortage of fanfare in Tampa for Breeze's debut.
Neeleman, the consummate showman, pulled out all the stops.
I arrived at Tampa airport at about 7:45 a.m. with my colleague Zach Griff, with plenty of time to spare before an 8:15 a.m. press conference.
The presser began a few minutes late, and featured comments from Neeleman and local officials. A strong turnout from local TV and print media was there to witness it.
Although Breeze says it will participate in TSA PreCheck, the PreCheck clearance didn't come through on my boarding pass — nor did it for any other passengers I spoke with — meaning I'd have to go through the full security process. To allow some extra time for the potential hassle, I left the presser to head to the gate a few minutes early.
I got lucky — I was in a screening lane that was trialing the TSA's new CT bag screening process, so I didn't have to take my laptop, iPad, camera, three lenses, flash, and assorted liquids out of my bag.
Once through security, it was easy to find my gate — it was the one with the singer, the swag table, the giant cake, and the balloons. Classic Neeleman splash, though it was a scene that seemed perfectly appropriate for a brand new airline.
The gate area was packed. The first flight sold out in 30 minutes, with a large contingent of aviation enthusiasts, reporters, bloggers, and others snagging all of the seats.
I enjoyed the festivities for a few minutes — including a quick slice of cake — before boarding the plane early to get photos, and then heading down to the ramp with an escort (thank you, Kendra!) to get photos of the plane — and of Neeleman spraying a ceremonial bottle of champagne on the plane.
After that, it was time to board for real.
Cabin and Departure
Breeze plans to reduce costs and expedite its launch by initially leasing 118-seat Embraer E195 jets from Azul, as well as 108-seat E190s from Nordic Aviation Capital. That means low capital costs to start. The airline is also in agreement to purchase 60 new Airbus A220-300 jets, which can hold up to 160 passengers. Neeleman said he expects the first delivery in October, with one delivery a month after that through the next few years.
The inaugural flight was aboard one of the E195s, tail number N190BZ operating as flight MX1. MX, the airline's IATA code, appears to be a nod to Moxy (its ICAO code is MXY). Of course, "MX" is also the code for "mechanical issue" in aviation parlance, so hopefully it isn't a sign of things to come.
The E195 features 30 rows in a 2-2 configuration — aside from row 1, which only has seats on the right side of the aircraft, the E and F seats.
The first five rows are Breeze's extra-legroom seats, part of the "Nicer" fare, as are the seats in the exit row (row 14).
Nicer fares come with an extra legroom seat: depending on the row, that’s 33 to 39 inches of pitch on the E-190s, and 34 to 39 inches on the E-195s. Nicer fares include a full-size carry-on and a checked bag, a drink and snack, and earn 4% BreezePoints.
Nice fares, the airline’s hybrid of standard and basic economy, come with a standard seat without a seat assignment — all seats are in a 2-2 configuration — with 29 inches of pitch on the E-190 and 31 inches on the E-195. Nice passengers can bring a personal item — a full-size carry-on or checked bag will cost extra — and earn 2% BreezePoints.
Fresh wind coming: Breeze puts first 39 routes on sale for as little as $39
The other one: Startup Avelo was going to launch in East, but it went West to capitalize on rivals’ cuts in California
Seat assignments start at $10 each, although families traveling with children 12 and under can pick seats for free. Checked bags — and carry-on bags, for Nice fares — are $20 each, one-way, for up to three bags.
I went with the Nicer fare, mostly to get the included carry-on bag, but also to see how the "premium" cabin experience on the ultra-low-cost-carrier (ULCC) actually was. I was in seat 1F, the bulkhead window seat on the right. It felt like I had the upper end of that 34-39-inch range of legroom.
The cabin has been cleaned up and retrofitted since the planes were received from Azul, and although that "new plane smell" isn't quite as strong as on a brand new aircraft, the cabin is bright, clean, and comfortable.
Importantly, at least to someone like me who always tends to feel overheated, individual air vents are available at every seat.
The seats were well padded and comfortable for a sub-2-hour flight — and I say that as a passenger whose back screaming in protest from a week of travel and hauling a heavy backpack.
My only request would have been adjustable winged headrests, which the seats don't have. But, again, on the short flights that these E-jets will be operating, that's a luxury that I can do without.
One of my favorite things about inaugurals is how excited the airport and airline workers are. The captain came into the cabin before we left to welcome everyone on board the inaugural, and as we pushed back, ramp workers were standing around us taking photos, while a row of Breeze employees waved us off.
And, of course, we had a traditional water cannon salute from Tampa Airport Fire and Rescue.
After a short taxi, we were airborne!
A nice flight
Breeze received some criticism for its unusual flight attendant staffing plan, initially centered on recruiting college students from Utah Valley University, offering them housing and full tuition reimbursement as payment for in-state students (out-of-state students would receive a $6,000 annual scholarship).
After Breeze failed to recruit enough flight attendants that way, the company began to hire other applicants on four-year contracts.
A 118-seat passenger jet must be staffed by at least three flight attendants, according to FAA rules. This flight was staffed by six — three certified flight attendants, and three trainees.
One of those trainee flight attendants, Krissy Wiley, told me that she joined the program as a UVU student in order to pay for school while also getting to travel.
The inflight leader, Michael Miller, on the other hand, had years of experience in airlines, working for JetBlue, Emirates, and ultimately Delta for a decade, where he was a flight attendant before assuming various leadership roles.
Miller said he took a buyout offer from Delta during the early stages of the pandemic, and was excited to come to Breeze to get back in the air. In addition to working as a flight attendant, he will be in charge of the airline's four flight attendant bases — the four hub cities.
Normally, the airline plans to offer a range of snacks and drinks for purchase on board (or complimentary for Nicer passengers).
But the airline's provisioning plan hadn't been finalized with vendor LSG prior to launch. So until that's settled, the airline will offer all passengers complimentary mini water bottles along with either a bag of potato chips or a small granola bar.
Another thing not yet in place: in-flight entertainment.
While the airline says it will have streaming entertainment available on the Embraers, that was not ready for launch on the inaugural. Notably, these planes won't have internet connectivity despite the planned availability streaming movies and TV shows. The airline says that full internet connections will be available on the A220s, which will operate longer flights.
After a brief but fun time in the air, chatting with airline employees, other Avgeeks, and past- and current colleagues, we began our descent into Charleston.
I was the first off the plane, and was met by a scene that was smaller than the one in Tampa, but just as festive. Local media was out in force, and Neeleman was ready to greet the crowd.
The Breeze business model makes sense, given the incredibly low costs the airline will incur. Neeleman is leasing the Embraer jets inexpensively, and says he has managed to keep operating costs low through a variety of measures. Even with relatively low aircraft utilization, the concept has potential.
Whether that continues to be the case as Breeze takes delivery of the A220s is another question. Even with a fantastic deal, those planes will cost Neeleman significantly more, putting additional pressure on his margins.
Even though the airline's long-term prospects will be an open question, there are a few things we can know for sure now.
The Breeze experience is overall pleasant and comfortable — an easy experience for a point-to-point flight.
There are still some bumps to smooth out, but those didn't interfere with the overall experience as the airline began operations.
In-depth: Neeleman tells TPG Breeze will use a ‘see how it goes’ approach to succeed. And business class — eventually
Finally, David Neeleman knows how to sell, and he does it well. Even for those with doubts about Breeze's long-term prospects, there's no denying that Neeleman's record speaks for itself: the man knows how to build and sell an airline. Why should this time be any different?