Doubling down on London: Onboard JetBlue's first flight to London Gatwick
London has been a long time coming for JetBlue.
The New York-based carrier first announced plans to launch transatlantic service from New York and Boston two-and-a-half years ago, confirming rumors and speculation that had run rampant for years before that.
Back in Spring 2019, when JetBlue made its plans public, the airline said that it would begin service in 2021. And, earlier this year, it announced that it wouldn't let the pandemic get in the way of those plans.
But there was a twist: Service would only start from New York, with Boston postponed until 2022. Given reduced demand due to the pandemic, that was not terribly surprising.
But then there was a bigger twist: After having been cagey about which airport in London they would fly to, JetBlue would double down and fly to both London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
Both airports serve different but significantly overlapping needs — akin to New York's JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. In broad terms, it's Heathrow that boasts major flagship carriers and links all around the world, making it a crucial link for any airline looking to secure business travel demand to London. Gatwick is more leisure-oriented and serves as the home airport of ultra-low-cost-carrier EasyJet. Both airports have decent connection options to central London, and which airport is preferred generally depends on where you're going in the region or where you're connecting to.
Days before the airline launched its service to London Heathrow, the airline pared its schedule for August and September — and later October — due to the ongoing travel restrictions between the U.S. and U.K.
But then, in a moment of total serendipity, the U.K. waived quarantine requirements for most vaccinated travelers just a few days before JetBlue's Aug. 11 inaugural.
That was an absolute stroke of luck, JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty told me.
"We didn't know, it was totally coincidental," Geraghty said. "We knew it would happen, it was just a matter of when. It ended up being both later than we thought, and sooner than we thought, if that makes sense."
Now, shortly after the U.S. similarly announced that it would allow vaccinated foreign travelers to enter starting in November, JetBlue is beginning flights to a second airport.
TPG was on board for the Gatwick inaugural, just like we were when my former colleague Zach Honig flew to Heathrow last month.
The preceding 400 words are more context than I would typically give before a "first look" article on TPG. But it's been a complicated journey to get here (both metaphorically and literally), and the Gatwick launch comes at a pivotal time for the airline industry, with international travel and the crucial London-New York corridor likely approaching a major inflection point.
So with that out of the way, here's what JetBlue brought to the table for its first flight to Gatwick.
Gate-side celebrations almost on-par with Heathrow
I flew in from my relatively new home city of Boston earlier in the day, ironically on Delta rather than JetBlue or American Airlines through the Northeast Alliance. That was for no particular reason other than schedule and price, although I have higher-level status on Delta than American.
After enjoying some fresh air and killing some time plane-spotting, I meandered over to Terminal 5, which is almost entirely occupied by JetBlue.
I got my boarding pass through the JetBlue app when I checked in, but — since I've already traveled abroad — I knew that the airline would have to check my COVID test and other travel documents. So I went to the check-in counter, showed my paperwork, and got a paper boarding pass.
I had wondered what the gate-side celebrations would look like. Heathrow was the "real" big deal, so to speak — the airline's first time leaving the Americas.
As I got closer to the gate and heard the Beatles playing — followed by Adele, Queen, and The Who — it became clear that a celebration was still planned.
It wasn't quite as widespread as the Heathrow inaugural's party — it was largely contained to the gate, and there were no stilt-walkers roaming the rest of the terminal — but there was still quite an elaborate setup at Gate 15 at the end of the concourse.
Geraghty, who would be on the flight, suggested that it would be a mistake to view Gatwick as secondary to Heathrow.
"They complement one another very well," Geraghty told me. "We're also the only airline flying from Gatwick to the U.S. right now."
There was a long table of treats for passengers — sticky toffee pudding, tea, and souvenir pins — and a gigantic Union Jack to serve as the backdrop for executive speeches and a ribbon cutting, which started promptly at 6 p.m., a little over an hour before the scheduled boarding time.
Just after 7 p.m., pre-boarding was announced, followed by Mint passengers and Mosaic members, then Core passengers by boarding group — A, B, C, and then mine — D.
A new cabin befitting a new route
I do my best to avoid hyperbole when I report, so believe that I mean this: I was blown away by JetBlue's meal service.
But let's not get ahead of things.
JetBlue flies its new mission-specific Airbus A321LR aircraft on its London flights.
Unlike pretty much every other offering to London, these are narrow-body planes. But they're easily capable of the transatlantic route.
The LR fleet features 24 Mint business class seats — 22 "suites," in a 1-1 configuration, and two "studios," with an abundance of extra space. You can find similar seats on the A321neo fleet, just fewer of them.
In the back, the main cabin features 24 extra legroom "Even More Space" seats, and 90 Core seats, all in a standard 3-3 layout.
I was in seat 24C, about two-thirds of the way back.
Like on the A321neo, the seats are solid and comfortable, perfectly manageable for the short red-eye. Fortunately, the plane was only about 65% full, and I had an empty middle seat. Despite the overnight flight, I can't sleep sitting upright — so I just worked and watched movies, which is my usual M.O. on flights to the U.K.
Still, I never felt cramped being on the narrow-body, which was another thing I'd wondered about using this plane-type on longer flights. And despite there only being two lavatories for the whole coach cabin, I never noticed much of a queue for them.
London calling: Where to sit when flying JetBlue’s A321LR to and from the United Kingdom
There are plenty of options to power your phone and other devices, with USB-A power outlets below the in-flight entertainment screen, as well as USB-C sockets and full power-outlets between the seats.
Speaking of the in-flight entertainment screen: The A321LR and neo fleets, like all JetBlue planes, have a screen at every seat with free live TV. There's a solid selection of movies and TV shows, and an interactive flight map.
You can also pair your phone with your IFE system, then use it as a remote control.
That's just one of the ways that passengers can interact with the IFE system, but more on that in a few.
Waiting for passengers at each seat was a blanket, a small sleep kit, and a reusable silicone amenity kit featuring a pair of socks, a mint, lip balm, and moisturizer.
There was also a postcard and a flag waiting in the seat pocket — flags alternated at each seat between British and American. As we settled in, buckled up, and prepared to push back, the flight crew asked everyone to wave their flags for a photo op.
A few minutes later, we were away from the gate, and at 8:11 p.m., we were in the air.
Coach service perfected
When JetBlue announced the London route details, it also announced a new on-board meal service that created a lot of buzz.
The airline partnered with New York restaurant chain Dig Inn — a lunch staple in Manhattan — to develop customizable ground-quality meals.
The idea behind Dig Inn is that you can create your own dish by choosing from a variety of mains and sides, mixing and matching to your heart's delight. And the food is all high-quality.
JetBlue said that it would bring Dig Inn to the skies — specifically to the coach cabin, or Core. Every passenger would be able to create their own dish, choosing their own mains and sides, rather than the usual model of choosing a main that's plopped on a tray with a uniform salad, roll, and so on.
Key to the meal service: the IFE screen. When you activate it at the start of your flight, or as soon as you sit down, the screen displays your name to confirm you're at the right seat, and prompts you to order dinner, choosing your mains and sides.
What I wondered was: Could that actually be achieved quickly? Or would dinner still be going on as the flight passes over Ireland and begins its descent?
I ordered my meal as I settled into my seat before pushback — after take-off, the flight attendants made an announcement explaining how to place the dinner order for any passengers who hadn't done it yet.
Drink service began shortly after take-off, with one cart starting from the front of the Core cabin, and another starting from the back and working its way forward. Both carts met right around my row, with that first drink service wrapping at about 8:50 p.m., or 40 minutes after take-off.
About 10 minutes later, the flight attendants brought out dinner cart, with each passenger's tray pre-assembled with their meal choices.
My row was again served towards the end, and I got my dinner at about 9:25, or an hour and 15 minutes after take-off, as we flew above Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Again, I'm doing my best to avoid hyperbole here. The meal was perfect. The nature of Dig Inn's model — fresh but batch-made food, kept in heating trays while different orders are assembled — admittedly translates well to airplane food format. Each main and side is in its own little dish, so for the flight attendants, it's just a matter of assembling the dishes on the trays for each order, rather than having to plate the food.
But still, it was absolutely delicious. The meatballs with tomato and farro were juicy and tasty, the mac and cheese was rich and flavorful and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs, and was perfect with the accompanying hot sauce. The kale apple salad was crisp and refreshing. Honestly, the meal rivaled any business-class dinner I've had before
As we were eating, the flight attendants came around with dessert — wrapped cookie ice cream sandwiches. As I finished eating, I realized why they had been brought out early; they were frozen solid and needed some time to thaw. Still delicious, though. Even my mostly vegan seatmate had a few bites.
Trays were cleared at about 9:55 p.m. as we flew over Newfoundland. So there's my answer about whether the whole service could be finished before hitting Ireland.
Instead, that's when breakfast was served.
At about 1 a.m. New York time, or 6 a.m. London time, the lights came up, and the flight attendants came through offering two breakfast choices: a warm chocolate croissant, or a fresh fruit salad.
A final drink service came through, and everything was cleared by 6:40 a.m. London time.
Arrival at Gatwick
We landed at about 7:15 a.m. London time, a full 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
Disembarkation was quick and easy, and passengers were able to walk through to the electronic passport gates.
The airline held a press conference and landing party in the No. 1 lounge — a Priority Pass member — in Gatwick's North terminal after landing.
The lounge was fully decked out for JetBlue, with drinks, snacks, and breakfast foods available.
After a remarks by a few executives and VIPs, it was time for me to make my way into central London.
JetBlue offers a competitive product on the high-profile New York-London route, with seats that are at least in-line with its best competition and meal service that blows the other airlines out of the water.
With Gatwick, the airline has expanded its footprint in London just as travel is set to open back up, giving JetBlue what it sees as the perfect opportunity.
The airline executives and employees who were on the flight plan to spend their time in London working to build relationships and develop corporate clients, several of them told me, hoping to cash in on the expected pent-up demand for both business and personal travel across the ocean.
With both Heathrow and Gatwick available, which airport you choose is ultimately a personal choice. Gatwick was nice, but I suspect that in the future I'd pick Heathrow only because the flight leaves and arrives later. That means you have a better chance of being able to check into your hotel.
Of course, others — especially those who can sleep on these flights — might prefer the earlier start so that they can get an extra full day in London.
To each their own!