JetBlue says it’s pressing ahead with plans to fly to London

May 7, 2020

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JetBlue still plans to begin transatlantic service in the foreseeable future, despite ongoing difficulties across the airline industry.

In its quarterly earnings call on Thursday, the New York-based low cost carrier said its top priority in the coming years will be a return to profitability. But CEO Robin Hayes said there will still be opportunities “to play a bit of offense,” including by moving forward with its plans to serve London from its bases at New York JFK and Logan International Airport in Boston.

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“The need for us to enter that market and bring more competition is still as relevant in the future as it was in the past,” Hayes said.

He acknowledged, though, that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could affect the start date for that service.

“We wouldn’t be starting that today,” he said. “Certainly you should expect a timing impact, we’ll probably go a little later than we intended.”

JetBlue has never quite been clear on exactly when it planned to start the flights as it is. When the airline announced its intention to begin flights to London last April, it simply said the route would begin in 2021. Details have remained scarce about exactly when in the year flights would begin or which airport the airline would serve in the British capital.

Related: JetBlue will do a flyover of New York City with 3 planes on Thursday evening.

The airline noted in Thursday’s presentation that it would still receive five of the Airbus A321LRs that it intends to deploy on the routes in 2021.

Hayes also hinted that JetBlue may be in a better position than previously expected to pick up slots at Heathrow.

An American Airlines plane takes off at Heathrow Airport. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday February 7, 2020. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
An American Airlines plane takes off at Heathrow Airport. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday February 7, 2020. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

Landing rights at London’s two busiest airports — Heathrow and Gatwick — are tightly controlled. And, especially at Heathrow, slots hard to come by and are expensive when they do come on the market. In 2016, for example, The Times of London reported that Oman Air paid $75 million for a pair of take-off and landing slots there — enough for just one daily round-trip flight. 

But hours before JetBlue’s call on Thursday, Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that British Airways and American Airlines, which operate a dominant joint venture across the Atlantic, will be giving up some slots at Heathrow or Gatwick in response to concerns the regulator has about the airlines’ position in the competitive environment.

Related: JetBlue begins flying new “tag” routes in order to comply with CARES Act.

The newly-available slots will be targeted to allow new airlines to start flights between London and cities in the U.S., including Dallas, Miami and Boston — the latter of which JetBlue already planned to serve.

“On some of these routes there are either few or no other airlines offering direct flights to passengers,” Ann Pope, the CMA’s senior antitrust director said in a statement. British Airways and American Airlines’ decision to give up some slots, she added, “has the potential to increase competition and deliver lower fares for customers, while also preserving the benefits that joint airline agreements offer passengers.”

Hayes said JetBlue has long held the same position.

“We’ve been pushing the point with regulators for the last two years that the transatlantic was not that competitive, that we could bring price discipline.”

The airline has still not announced details about when it will begin flights to London or which of the city’s airports it will serve, but Thursday’s investor call made clear that JetBlue has no intention of backing off its transatlantic ambitions.

Read more: Airlines flew empty flights to get coronavirus aid; now they’re asking Congress for help.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson.

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