JetBlue adds bag fee and shrinks legroom, but strikes a balance

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JetBlue economy A321Industry analysts say JetBlue Airways’ decision to charge for checked bags and to reconfigure its planes to accommodate more passengers will keep Wall Street happy while still enabling the carrier to offer the most legroom in economy class and to maintain its customer-friendly persona.

JetBlue is introducing three levels of bundled fares that are based on the number of bags passengers check: none, one or two. The higher fares will also give customers more flexibility and the ability to earn more TrueBlue loyalty points.

Fares will be available in the GDSs.

The carrier will add 15 “slimline” seats to its A320s, the same seats that are already installed on its A321s. Because the new seats, which JetBlue will begin to install in mid-2016, are two inches thinner than the old ones, JetBlue said passengers will still have more “living space.” Still, the seat pitch will be 32 inches, two inches less than the current seat pitch on the A320s. Seat pitch on the A321s is 33 inches.

“We’re moving from an average fleet-wide seat pitch of 34.7 inches to 33.1 inches,” said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications.

JetBlue will continue to sell its Even More Space seats, which have extra legroom, as well as Mint, the premium transcontinental service it began offering in June.

Industry analysts praised the changes.

“While I know that there are plenty of folks out there yelling about JetBlue’s decision, the reality is that JetBlue still has industry-leading seat pitch,” said Mary Kirby, founder and editor of Runway Girl Network, an aviation news website.

Average fleetwide seat pitchShe said that most legacy carriers offer 31-inch seat pitch on long-haul flights, while JetBlue will be offering 32 inches at minimum on domestic flights.

Kirby said she was “pleasantly surprised” by JetBlue’s announcement.

“I was expecting them to bow to Wall Street pressure and add more seats,” she said, “but they didn’t add as many as they could have.”

The additional seats will bring the total number of seats on its A320s to 165. Kirby said JetBlue could have added 30 seats, bringing the number of seats to 180. Johnston said the new seats are more comfortable because of their suspension design; the seat is woven fabric suspended from the sides of the seat instead of a hard surface covered by cushions.

All seats feature in-seat power outlets and improved entertainment systems that offer more than 100 DirecTV channels on a 10.1-inch video screen.

Johnston said that the airline is also positioning seats in a way that gives consumers more legroom.

Airline analyst Michael Boyd, president and CEO of Boyd Group International, said that by adding seats and charging to check bags, JetBlue is wisely picking up money that it had been leaving on the table.

“I don’t get why JetBlue still has 34 inches of seat pitch,” Boyd said. “This is not the 1960s. Why give it away? This is just solid business sense.”

He predicted that consumers would accept the reduced space.

“Compared to the rest of the sardine cans that are flying through the sky, they’re pretty roomy,” Boyd said of the newly configured aircraft.

Moreover, Boyd said, customers have become accustomed to paying for checked bags.

“It doesn’t make sense for airlines not to charge for bags,” he said, although he added that it might make sense for Southwest Airlines to “make a lot of hay” with the fact that it does not charge for bags.

And, in fact, after JetBlue’s announcement, Southwest’s website highlighted the fact that “bags fly free for all only at Southwest.” And on its “Nuts About Southwest” blog, Bob Jordan, the carrier’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, asked readers if they were “feeling a bit blue” and reassured them that “Southwest has your back, and your bag.” He wrote that Southwest doesn’t charge fees because “our customers hate those fees.”

Despite Southwest’s jibes about JetBlue’s new bag fees, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt praised the way that JetBlue is letting customers decide whether they want to pay to check bags.

Harteveldt also pointed out that JetBlue continues to offer free snacks and free basic WiFi at a bandwidth that is adequate for reading email and surfing the Web. Travelers who want to stream video can buy the premium service for $9 per hour, Johnston said. Both levels of the service, known as Fly-Fi, should be installed on all of JetBlue’s A320s and A321s by the first half of 2015. Installation on its Embraer 190s will begin after that.

JetBlue plans to monetize its Fly-Fi through partnerships it is pursuing with Verizon, the Wall Street Journal, Time and others.

Harteveldt said Fly-Fi was another illustration of how JetBlue is effectively balancing its need to be fair to its customers while being responsible to shareholders.

And that works for JetBlue, Boyd said, because “they don’t have customers; they have groupies. They have people that follow them around like teenagers chasing a rock star.”

JetBlue first began using the Core seats — JetBlue-speak for economy class — on four A321s that went into service last December. Core is part of an in-flight experience revamp that included the June introduction of Mint, the carrier’s premium service with lie-flat seats on transcontinental flights.

JetBlue said it would be expanding its Mint service as well, adding it to more flights between New York Kennedy and Los Angeles through the end of this year and on Kennedy flights to San Francisco through the first quarter of next year.

It is also deferring until the 2020-to-2023 time frame the delivery of 18 Airbus aircraft that originally had been scheduled to be added to the fleet from 2016 to 2018. JetBlue said the delayed deliveries will save it more than $900 million in capital expenditures through 2017 and enable the airline to optimize its fleet to better match capacity with demand.

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