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JetBlue’s recent announcement that in 2021 it will begin flying to London from both New York JFK and Boston has made waves. The expectation is that JetBlue will do to the North Atlantic market what it already did to the US transcon a few years ago: lower the average fare, while introducing an award-winning premium product.
JetBlue has a tough job ahead in a crowded market, but by deploying brand-new, fuel-efficient Airbus A321LR single-aisle aircraft, it might be able to carve out a profitable niche for itself and maybe revolutionize the premium market with a new version of its business class, Mint. So far, so good. But there’s one key thing we don’t know: Which London airport is JetBlue going to be flying to?
With at least six airports in the Greater London area offering international scheduled commercial service — Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Southend and London City — it looks like JetBlue is spoiled for choice.
But is it, really?
Let’s have a look at the possible choices, ordered by what we think is the likelihood JetBlue will fly there, from least likely to most likely.
London City (LCY)
- The business community’s favorite because of its proximity to the City and extreme closeness to the Canary Wharf financial district, this tiny airport offers a boutique-like experience, but has serious operational constraints. Its single, short runway can be used only by relatively small planes.
- British Airways does fly from LCY to New York JFK, but it does so with a specially configured all-business 32-seat Airbus A318. Even then, the outbound journey includes a refuelling stop at Shannon, Ireland, due to weight restrictions. JetBlue’s A321s are out of the question here. LCY is the only real nonstarter in this contest.
- Southend plays a rather marginal role in the London airport system, which makes it difficult to see it as a serious contender to get these routes. Its location, 40 miles east of London at the far end of the Thames estuary, means its appeal for Londoners or people visiting is rather limited. There is a rail link to Liverpool Street station, which is itself on the eastern edge of the City, but the journey can take almost an hour.
- Only recently some low-cost airlines have started to operate a limited number of regular services at SEN.
- As the birthplace of Easyjet, Luton has a place of honor in the history of low-cost airlines, yet its limitations are hard to ignore. Luton caters mostly to a low-cost and charter passenger base and its Spartan, unpretentious architecture does not hide its purpose.
- Besides its use by executive-jet operators, attempts to launch more premium products from Luton have all ended in failure.
- The airport is some 35 miles north of London and, although close to a major rail trunk line with frequent train service into Central London and beyond, the station is a couple of miles from the terminal. The free bus shuttle to and from the station does not mitigate the extra hassle.
- Two decades of vertiginous growth of the low-cost airline sector have turned this former World War II air force base into one of the UK’s busiest airports and the third by traffic among those serving the London area.
- On the plus side, Stansted has modern, functional facilities and spare capacity for further growth. It is more than 40 miles from Central London, but the Stansted Express train connects it with Liverpool St. station in about 45 minutes.
- Its location means it is relatively well connected to the City and up-and-coming East London. It is also close to Cambridge and the area that has come to be known as the “Silicon Fen”, an emerging hub for high tech and biotechnology businesses.
- It may be harder to reach from other areas of London, though, and its association with budget airlines — namely with Ryanair, its largest operator by far — may hamper efforts to sell a more upmarket product out of Stansted.
- London’s biggest airport is also the busiest in Europe, and one of the most congested in the world. This is where most premium traffic into London goes — the first and business-class cabins that make up a lot of airlines’ revenue — and therefore the airport where airlines get consistently their highest yields.
- Heathrow is also close enough to Central London to be reachable by metro with relative ease. Business passengers may prefer the faster, but rather pricey, Heathrow Express train from Paddington Station in West London, or getting there by cab.
- Heathrow is the airport all airlines want to fly to, and this is precisely why getting a pair of attractive slots is mission (nearly) impossible.
- Some cash-strapped airlines have resorted to selling their slots at Heathrow, but these usually command big sums of money and may be subject to regulatory approval.
- However, we cannot rule out that JetBlue could manage to secure a couple of Heathrow slots. After all, JetBlue started out of a major, and congested, airport: JFK. But with no chance of Heathrow’s controversial third runway being built ahead of the JetBlue inaugural in 2021, this sounds like a complicated option.
- This is, in principle, the natural choice for many of the operators that wish to offer long haul service from London but couldn’t find slots at LHR. Although slightly further away from the center of London than Heathrow and lacking some of its business allure, LGW is not without its advantages.
- Gatwick enjoys direct rail links to several stations in Central London as well as to other cities in Southern England. From quite a few areas of London it could arguably be faster and more convenient to reach than Heathrow.
- Single-runway Gatwick, already one of Europe’s 10 busiest airports, is approaching congestion at peak times but there is still some room to grow. Significant investment has gone into upgrading its facilities since it changed hands in 2009, and a further £1.1B ($1.43B) has been pledged for the next five years.
- Gatwick also runs a connection program called “Gatwick Connects” used by airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, WestJet, easyJet and Cathay Pacific, helping passengers self-connect between different airlines. JetBlue has surely taken note of this.
So, which one for JetBlue?
“In a complex airport system like London’s, some natural segmentation occurs,” said Pere Suau-Sanchez, Senior Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Cranfield University in the UK and Associate Professor at the Open University of Catalonia. “Whether it is based on some real advantage or just perception, some people will be willing to pay a premium to fly out of Heathrow, no matter what.”
These are the people that JetBlue may be trying to lure away, particularly with products like Mint. But if no slots are found at a reasonable price, we think that the next best option may be to fly to Gatwick.
This is, unless JetBlue opts for a more radical approach and opts for Stansted, this may be a distant third choice, though. “Stansted is connected to economically important areas such as the City or the industrial and tech corridor around Cambridge and along the M11, but the catchment area is not as strong as in Gatwick and the mix of demand is possibly more interesting for JetBlue in Gatwick than in Stansted,” according to Suau-Sanchez.
At Gatwick, though, there is a risk that JetBlue’s pricing edge may look less impressive, as it will be taking on a practiced long-haul low-cost operator like Norwegian. Even British Airways is making a play for price-conscious passenger out of Gatwick, with Boeing 777s fitted with denser seating.
Featured image by FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
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