Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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JetBlue: Common Sense Still Flies After 18 Years
Thursday, February 8, 2018 -- I have an idea for a new airline and I will gladly give it to any venture capital firm willing to fund it and any customer-centric chief executive gutsy enough to lead it.
I even have a brand name: CommonSense Airways. And slogan: We Move Our Brain For You.
CommonSense Airways would never suffer the shame of having the world watch a passenger dragged off its airplane for refusing to give up his seat. CommonSense Air would never boot a woman, racing to be with her dying mom, off a flight.
CommonSense Air would not be overtly devious, either. It would not try to install barbaric seats with 29 inches of legroom after once bragging it was the "more room in coach" airline. CommonSense Air would never consistently reduce payoffs in its frequent flyer program or lacerate customers with new and higher fees as a no-value-add cash grab.
Indeed, CommonSense Air would have a chief empathy officer as chief executive officer. Its top two passengers, ranked by paid miles flown--a man and a woman-–would sit on its crony-free board of directors. And CommonSense Air would only hire psychologically vetted, genuinely friendly staffers fiercely committed to gracious customer service. Any rude or robotic employee would be sacked, reprimanded or "re-trained" depending on the grievance. But they won't be required to be nice for nothing. Employees would receive positive-space passes, not space-available tickets, as part of their benefits package.
Wait a minute, wait a minute. We already have a U.S. airline that has shown a modicum of common sense in its pricing and pampering. It pioneered free, live in-flight entertainment. It's grown organically, not through mergers that become culture-clashing mash-ups.
This comparative model of sanity in the increasingly ugly domestic skies? JetBlue Airways. Celebrating its 18th birthday this month, JetBlue has stood firm with a relatively low-cost playbook and mostly resisted the ham-fisted legacy carriers' model of nickel, diming and chiseling its passengers
Right out of the chute, JetBlue disrupted the marketplace with free, live seatback TVs, a bit more legroom in coach and a diverse workforce eager to serve. Almost all were first-time airline employees who weren't battered pawns in decades of management and union wrangling.
JetBlue was born in the brain of a visionary airline executive named David Neeleman, who's gone on to create Azul in Brazil and revitalize the once-moribund TAP Air Portugal. He is a plain-spoken, family man who connects with people. Two CEOs later, his DNA, if not his presence, can still be felt in the JetBlue experience.
JetBlue has stayed mostly on course--and in the black--in the turbulent times of the 21st century. It has gone public, become the nation's fifth-largest airline, expanded to 82 cities in North America and buttressed its New York/Kennedy hometown hub with connecting operations at Boston/Logan and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood. In-flight TV is still free. So is the WiFi. And much to the chagrin of legacy carriers, it has a disruptive domestic premium cabin called Mint that has lie-flat beds and creative culinary offerings.
I booked several coast-to-coast roundtrips last year to test the current state of JetBlue and the flights were mostly relaxing and comfortable, even in coach. The flight crews are still congenial, too, a noticeable difference compared to U.S. legacy airlines with their rigidity and all-too-frequent tone deafness.
Another thing that hasn't changed? JetBlue still covets a fair share of business and corporate travelers.
The big draw on its longer-haul routes has been the newish Mint. It has the longest lie-flat bed--6 feet, eight inches--in the domestic skies. There are four totally private and 12 semi-private suites. Prices are modest, especially if you book early, fly midweek and score a ticket for as low as $599 one-way. (Roundtrips are still not required on any fare.) But snagging cheap Mint fares is tough. The best I could get on a San Francisco-to-New York/Kennedy three weeks out was $1,856 roundtrip.
Still, Mint is flat-out amazing. For starters, the seat can give you a back massage, the 15-inch touch-screen video has a library of movies, more than 100 channels of DirecTV and 100 channels of XM radio. The WiFi is fast enough to stream video.
In fact, Mint mirrors the JetBlue mindset of being stylish, but understated. Meals, described on a simple menu as "delish dishes," included an heirloom tomato salad, lobster risotto, a vegetable pot pie and pork tenderloin. All were tasty and, somehow, did not smack of airline food. The drinks flow. It's a comfortable cocoon that's currently offered on transcons linking six West Coast cities with New York, Boston and Ft. Lauderdale and many routes to the Caribbean from Kennedy and Logan.
Between the economy cabin and Mint, JetBlue has its version of premium economy. Called Even More Space, it has up to 38 inches of legroom. That's more than legacy airlines offer at most of their domestic first class chairs. (There are middle seats in the Even More section.)
Things are tightening up at JetBlue, however. After getting bullied by profit-obsessed security analysts in 2014, JetBlue announced it would shoehorn 15 more coach seats onto its workhorse Airbus A320s. But a series of manufacturing and production glitches delayed the space-crunching plans. The first aircraft didn't go into the shop for retrofit until last month and the "good news" is that there'll "only" be 12 more seats. That'll put JetBlue at 32 inches of coach legroom, about where the pitch was when the carrier launched in February, 2000. Meanwhile, legacy carriers have dropped their coach legroom to 30 inches.
JetBlue has other issues, too. Its route network is thin in major business cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston. It won't even launch flights to Minneapolis until May. It has no airport clubs. Even by the declining standards of the legacy carriers, JetBlue's TrueBlue program is atrocious. And its on-time performance is abominable.
So Jet Blue is not the mythical CommonSense Airways of my dreams, but it's close. All things considered, 18 years in, JetBlue delivers the best domestic value-and-comfort-for-the-price travel experience for road soldiers.
So why aren't more business travelers booking JetBlue?
I asked that question of my Mint seatmate a couple months ago, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who is a 1K flyer with United and also has elite status with American and Delta.
"It's the miles," he said. "It's all about the miles. But there comes a point in life when miles aren't enough."
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.