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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE BUZZ
ON JETBLUE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

October 5, 2000 -- You may have heard the buzz about JetBlue Airways, the all-coach discount carrier that began flying from New York's Kennedy Airport in February.

You may have heard that JetBlue is trendy. That its leather seats are filled with beautiful people who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead flying coach. That JetBlue is the stylish way to fly to pedestrian places like Buffalo and Rochester, New York, and Oakland and Ontario, California. In other words, you have heard that JetBlue is where the jet-setting elite have suddenly agreed to meet.

After a dozen flights on the new airline, I can say with complete confidence that the buzz on JetBlue is a big blue log of baloney. JetBlue ain't trendy. And, with fat, old frequent flyers like me aboard, you know the beautiful-people quotient is near zero. In fact, just about everything you have heard about JetBlue is fantasy.

But here's the amazing thing: The truth about JetBlue is better than the fantasy. The planes are brand new and sparkling clean. Flights run on time--or what passes for on time in this era of exceedingly diminished expectations. Fares are dirt cheap and JetBlue does not require a roundtrip purchase or a Saturday-night stay. Best of all, you can walk up to the ticket counter any day of the week and buy a seat on JetBlue for a transcontinental flight or a short-haul in the Northeast and not wonder if you are spending the equivalent of next month's mortgage payment.

The truth about JetBlue is also this: If you want to fly tomorrow from Kennedy to Buffalo, you'll pay American Eagle $296.50 one way for the 300-mile flight and you'll sit on a turboprop with 29 inches of legroom. Or you can pay JetBlue $104.50 and sit on a new Airbus A320 jet with 32 inches of seat pitch. Need to go coast-to-coast tomorrow? Continental will fly you from Newark to Oakland on a Boeing 737, feed you dinner, and charge you $1,128.50 one way. A seat on JetBlue from Kennedy to Oakland is $252.50. You'll only get a bag of potato chips and a soft drink on JetBlue, so fly Continental if you think another delectable coach meal is worth the $876 premium.

By now, of course, you're thinking JetBlue may be just one more of those low-fare, no-frills, flash-in-the-pan start-ups that disappear the moment the major carriers swamp them with capacity and match their fares. There's nothing wrong with your logic, but that might not happen this time.

For starters, JetBlue says its has raised a war chest of $130 million. The airline's chief executive is David Neeleman, one of the founders of Morris Air, a Salt Lake City discounter so successful that Southwest bought it in 1993. The rest of the management team is peppered with experienced executives from Continental, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic.

JetBlue also has extremely powerful and patient political friends in New York. Last year, they helped the then-nameless, uncertified carrier win 75 slots at Kennedy in exchange for a promise to bring frequent service and low fares to upstate New York. The politicians haven't complained even though JetBlue will soon fly to more cities in Florida (Tampa, Fort Myers, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale) than in upstate New York (Buffalo and Rochester). They didn't even squawk last month when Neeleman again bypassed under-served, overcharged Syracuse and announced JetBlue would begin flying to his hometown, Salt Lake City, on November 17.

JetBlue's marketing and operations make it a canny cross between Southwest and Virgin Atlantic. With his big bankroll, Neeleman secured fresh-off-the-line A320s, guaranteeing low maintenance and operational costs. The airline is totally ticketless and seats must be purchased when reservations are made. The Airbus fleet is packed with 162 coach seats configured 3x3. In-flight service is minimal.

But JetBlue tarts itself up just enough to be better than flying coach on most major carriers. The chairs are covered in blue leather and you can reserve them in advance. The in-flight snacks are premium Terra Chips made from blue potatoes. JetBlue garnered nationwide publicity when it equipped its fleet with seat-back monitors showing live cable-television broadcasts. Then it got a second publicity hit when it decided to give the broadcasts away. And JetBlue has attitude. The livery, website and color schemes are post-Internet cool. Goofy, on-hold telephone messages compliment your hair--obviously, the flattery is lost on me--then play edgy music like the theme from American Beauty.

JetBlue has also turned what looked like a bad airport, Kennedy, into a defensible hub. Slots are controlled, so the majors can't rush in with competition. Despite its reputation as an airport plagued by delays, Kennedy is crowded only when its banks of international flights depart and arrive. JetBlue's flights are largely scheduled around the international service.

There's one other thing. While the fashion fascists at Travel&Leisure and Vanity Fair incorrectly claim that fickle jet setters are slumming it by flying JetBlue, the actual passenger mix is much more profitably predictable.

There are the bargain hunters--JetBlue's fares are as low as $49--many of whom would otherwise be driving to or from upstate New York or Florida. And then there is a small but growing cadre of business travelers attracted by the walk-up fares. I've been tracking JetBlue flights via the airline's website and a large number of tickets are sold a day or two before departure. It's likely that these buyers are cost-conscious frequent flyers.

"It's empowering to tell a client, 'I'll grab the next flight,' and know you can afford the next flight," marketing consultant Regina Rodriguez told me several weeks ago on a JetBlue flight to Burlington, Vermont. "I didn't even buy a return ticket. I can stay as long as I need to stay and not worry about what it will cost to walk up to the ticket counter and buy a seat."

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.