This year JetBlue began its robust Northeast Alliance (NEA) with American Airlines out of New York and Boston and launched its first flights across the Atlantic, serving London from New York. Senior editor Robert Silk caught up with JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty at the recent IATA annual meeting in Boston to discuss those developments, as well as her thoughts on the difficulties of operating during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Q: Everyone knows the pandemic has been tough on airlines. What has been the most challenging part about running JetBlue?
A: This past summer, ramping back up in a fairly quick fashion in an environment where there are a lot of new protocols, particularly around Covid documentation. It's a confusing environment for customers. All airlines are doing their best to communicate, particularly on international flights, about the requirements, the testing requirements. Many countries have paperwork requirements to fly. And that's been a challenge and a barrier for some, I think, to travel.
Q: What more would you like to see from governments?
A: I think the airline industry has taken some meaningful steps around digital health passports. We have a couple trials going on right now. We'll be launching something in quarter one. We've got websites posted with countries' specifications. We communicate in pre-travel emails requirements for certain countries. So, I think the airlines are doing everything they can to educate customers. I think the challenge is the ever-evolving landscape. Governments are constantly changing the requirements; they're not uniform and consistent from country to country. So, what you need, for example, in Barbados is slightly different than what you need in Grenada, which is slightly different from what you need going to the United Kingdom. And so, that makes it incredibly challenging for customers to know what to expect. And I think unnerving, as well.
Q: Your new Northeast Alliance has drawn a lawsuit from the Justice Department alleging it is anti-competitive. Tell me why you'll win, or why you don't think you should have been sued at all.
A: We're kind of perplexed that we were sued, because from our perspective the NEA is only delivering customer benefits. If you look at the growth we've announced, there's an increased relevance to customers out of New York's constrained market, where you have two dominant competitors in particular, Delta and United, and we're a third alternative. With American we provide far greater relevance for customers. We're able to grow there. We're able to provide a much greater degree of connectivity for customers as well as harmonious loyalty programs, lower fares and a great experience.
We've also grown outside of the NEA. Whether it's opening Miami, Key West, London, you name it. We were going to retire our Embraer 190 fleet. We are now keeping that fleet to support growth. So, I think it's interesting when you read the actual complaint from the DOJ, there is actually no harm specified. I think it's because they are probably struggling with trying to identify anything but consumer benefits.
Q: The DOJ argues that you're the junior partner and therefore could be bullied by American to compete less hard with them in portions of your network that are outside of the alliance. They cited your new London service, arguing JetBlue might not be motivated to compete vigorously against American because you're getting part of the money from American's London flights.
A: I would encourage them to fly our London route and then come back, because I think they will see we are competing extremely vigorously with every airline on that London route with a better product, a better service at a far lower fare.
Q: You just started JFK-Gatwick in late September following your Heathrow launch in August. Considering existing travel restrictions, how would you say the launches have gone?
A: So far, great. It was most certainly helpful when the U.S. government announced they were lifting the 212f [foreign entry] restrictions. We saw a 500% increase in bookings the day they announced it. We'll go to daily service, Heathrow and Gatwick, beginning in November. We've gotten rave reviews from customers, media, you name it. It's called the JetBlue effect. We go into markets that are historically overpriced, underserved, inferior product, inferior service, and we disrupt.