JetBlue's president on how the new London service is going, and what’s next
JetBlue's first foray across the Atlantic has been years in the making. As the worst of the pandemic receded and the vaccine first became available, it seemed almost perfectly aligned for the New York-based airline to launch its first routes to London.
As the airline announced service from New York to both London Heathrow and Gatwick (with service from Boston delayed until 2022) and began planning for the routes, things quickly changed. The delta variant spread around the U.K. and then the U.S., with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths surging as the vaccine drive began to stall. The U.S. remained closed to many foreign visitors, while the U.K. continued to impose a 10-day quarantine on Americans, regardless of vaccination or test status.
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Weeks before it was scheduled to begin flying to London Heathrow with its brand new Airbus A321LR fleet, with no sign of a reopening, JetBlue pared back its service from daily to 4 times a week. But then, days before the inaugural in August, the U.K. began to allow vaccinated, negative-testing visitors from the U.S. and other countries to skip the quarantine. In September, as JetBlue prepared to begin flying to London Gatwick, as well, the U.S. announced a scheduled reopening of its borders in November.
The launch of JetBlue's London service came during turbulent times. But the airline's president, Joanna Geraghty, said that things are looking very, very up.
"The day that the Biden administration announced they were lifting 212(f)" — the restriction on foreign visitors to the U.S. — "we saw a 500% increase in bookings" on the London routes, Geraghty told TPG during an interview at the International Air Transportation meeting in Boston this week.
"We think the level of pent-up demand is akin to probably what we saw [domestically] this summer."
It's good news for the entire airline industry, and while the transatlantic routes make up just a fraction of JetBlue's overall network, it's a positive sign considering the high importance the airline has placed on the flagship service.
"Given 212(f) was still in place, [load factors] where definitely nowhere near what we'd like them to be," Geraghty told TPG last week, ahead of the inaugural Gatwick flight. "So we're really excited about what the holiday period looks like."
Geraghty confirmed that the airline plans to restore its schedule to include daily service to both Heathrow and Gatwick in November, making the more-frequent capacity available.
With the launch, JetBlue has been marketing aggressively to both leisure and business travelers originating in the U.K., courting travel agents and corporate travel managers. For instance, Geraghty and JetBlue corporate employees flew to London on the Gatwick inaugural, then spent several days networking and pitching the carrier.
"We're certainly spending more energy in the U.K. originating piece just because our brand isn't as well-known over there, so that's where we're kind of doubling down," Geraghty said during the interview at IATA. "On the U.S. side, think small, medium businesses, similar to our Mint strategy."
"And there's also the high-value leisure customer," she added. "As we think about exiting the pandemic, there's most certainly, I think, a willingness for customers to maybe spend a little more on, you know, a better experience as they start returning to travel again."
Key to those markets, Geraghty said, is offering a premium product that, while not cheap, can be less expensive than business class on traditional airlines.
"First class, premium, has often been the cabin that people couldn't access because it wasn't affordable," she said. "And so we've disrupted with Mint going to the west coast, it's now accessible, it's affordable for small, medium businesses that don't have large corporate contracts. Same with as we go to London."
While the airline plans long-term to market its all-in-one JetBlue Vacations packages in the U.K. market, the priority right now is just building brand recognition in the U.K. and increasing the airline's foothold in the British market.
"Right now, we're very much focused on building our brand in the U.K., launching service, and then continuing to kind of increase levels of service," including with the Boston launch in 2022 (JetBlue has not announced which airport or airports in London would see the service from Boston).
As London takes off, JetBlue is already starting to set its sights further abroad.
"If you think about the range of the -321LR, think Western Europe, and think: where we do well tends to be overpriced markets where service is inferior. So longer-term, could it be Amsterdam, Paris, or Dublin? Those are some of the locations that I think the plane would do well from a range perspective," Geraghty said.
With 13 of the even more extended range A321XLR in its order book, with the first scheduled for delivery at the end of 2024, the airline could extend even deeper into Europe, Geraghty added.
"That will give us greater access into central and Eastern Europe."
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As far as connecting additional U.S. cities to Europe, Geraghty said that the airline is focusing on its hubs — at least for now.
"For now, it's New York and Boston. Whether that could extend to other destinations, possibly, but when you think about the LR and the performance range, New York and Boston are sort of the sweet spots for that aircraft."