Would jetBlue Flights to Europe Be a Success? Maybe.

At some point in the last year or two, I said something to the effect of “why can’t jetBlue just [explicit synonym for “take a risk”] and launch transatlantic flights?” Given that the distance between Gander, NF and Shannon, Ireland is significantly less than the 3,000+ mile maximum range of both the Airbus A320 and A321, I figured that jetBlue aircraft could easily make the trip to Europe from New York JFK or Boston (its main hub and focus city, respectively). Indeed, jetBlue’s success within the United States made it seem logical that the carrier would start to offer transatlantic flights.

It turns out that I wasn’t considering the whole picture. While I’m by no means an expert, my knowledge of the aviation has evolved significantly since then, making me better able to understand why a carrier wouldn’t want to start transatlantic service even if it has planes that can handle the trip.

That’s all irrelevant. What is pertinent, though, is that jetBlue’s Q2 2016 earnings report indicated that the carrier has decided to modify a pre-existing Airbus order to include the manufacturer’s A321LR — a narrow body aircraft part of the A320neo family that’s designed to give carriers a lower-density option for long-haul sectors such as flights between the U.S. and Europe.

The bottom-right corner indicates a not-so-subtle hint that jetBlue is contemplating flights to Europe. (jetBlue)

Of course, jetBlue has not committed to launching any particular route. More importantly, the first A321LR won’t be delivered for some time, so this is still a ways off. However, it is worth analyzing the claims and considerations that critics and supporters alike will be making about the potential success or failure of such an operation.

The Arguments Against: There are challenges in terms of operations, opposition, and jetBlue’s ability to be competitive with offerings.

Operations: This is more of an existing challenge, as it would be mitigated by the arrival of the A321LR. Still, it is worth examining.

As a result of charging less than other carriers, jetBlue needs to ensure that its planes are as full as possible. While more people on the plane results in more revenue, it also means more weight.

In the case of air travel, more weight equals less efficiency, which necessitates more fuel — thus a “lighter” narrow body will have a much easier time crossing the ocean than a heavier one. Certainly, a jetBlue A320 could fly nonstop from New York or Boston to Europe, but it would have to be fairly empty, and that’s ultimately the antithesis of putting as many people on the plane as possible. This — along with a number of other operational reasons — is likely why jetBlue hasn’t forayed into transatlantic flights yet.

Opposition: While jetBlue has made a name for itself as an excellent low-cost carrier within the Americas, it wouldn’t be the first carrier to offer low-cost transatlantic service.

For example, Norwegian Air Shuttle, another low-cost carrier who has undertaken a significant number of transatlantic operations, seats 291 passengers in its Boeing 787s — 65 more seats than an American Airlines 787. And while American can afford to have less seats due to the existence of business class (28 flat bed seats) and premium economy (57 seats), Norwegian’s focus on low-cost service means that its premium economy offering is significantly smaller (32 seats).

Norwegian Air Shuttle is arguably the pioneer of the low-cost transatlantic industry.

Moreover, Norweigan has caused significant controversy within the U.S. aviation industry, as it is alleged to pay pilots significantly less than their American counterparts, thus giving it an unfair competitive advantage. jetBlue, meanwhile, wouldn’t and couldn’t do the same, in all likelihood, so it is uncertain whether its prices could be competitive with Norwegian.

Offerings: As a low-cost carrier, jetBlue doesn’t have the same desire as legacy carriers to pander to those seeking premium options. And while this certainly works domestically, the success of most airlines’ intercontinental operations is largely dependent on revenue from business travelers.

Often times, premium tickets are either paid for by one’s employer or come about as a result of a status-based upgrade. So while many casual travelers would like to pay less to travel to Europe, legacy carriers have no problem filling “high-fare” seats, so they have little inclination to lower their prices. As a result, simply offering low fares would likely not be enough for jetBlue to eat into a significant chunk of transatlantic legacy carrier operations.

Certainly, there is a possibility that a new low-cost transatlantic market could be established, but it doesn’t appear that this will be happening anytime soon. In fact, I think it’s more likely that an unsuccessful route would be dropped before an airline would decrease prices to win back passengers, as the “willingness to pay” of business and other well-to-do travelers will leave legacy carriers with little incentive to lower fares for the Average Joe.

The Arguments For: Satisfaction equals success, whether at home or abroad.

Since it was first established in 1998, jetBlue has been a resounding success. Even though it is a low-cost carrier, this characteristic has not had a negative impact on its level of service. In fact, jetBlue has been the highest-ranked U.S. carrier by a number of respected ranking authorities, including JD Power and Skytrax, and the latter named it as just one of two four-star American carriers (the other being Virgin America).

jetBlue has been ranked the #1 airline in the United States by JD Power for the past 12 years.

While an important factor in examining a carrier’s success, quality of service isn’t the only are where jetBlue has been successful. jetBlue has an extensive route network, serving Cancun and Mexico City, a number of Caribbean countries, and select South American destinations. Though it has mostly made its name thanks to its successful domestic operations, jetBlue has proven its ability to operate viable routes outside of the United States.

Ultimately, jetBlue has built a sterling reputation based on low fares, excellent service, and incredible comfort. Assuming that its international product would be able to offer the same levels of quality, these attributes could result in a large number of international travelers choosing to fly jetBlue as opposed to a legacy carrier.

The Key Consideration: jetBlue would have to choose its routes carefully.

In addition to the necessary technical considerations, jetBlue would need to be strategic in its choice of routes. Sure, it could enter major markets, and would be able to offer fares lower than the legacy carriers, but there are a number of considerations to be made:

  1. It can’t compete with the premium offerings (first class and business class) of airlines such as Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa. On routes like JFK-LHR, business travelers and other high-paying customers play a significant part in revenue.
  2. Entering a new market where extensive competition already exists (such as NYC-LON, NYC-FRA, etc.) is much more difficult than establishing a new market. That said, building a new market is certainly risky, and some might argue that those markets don’t already exist “for a reason,” so extensive market research would need to be done in terms of route viability.
  3. While jetBlue could fly to alternative airports within a particular city, it has built its U.S. network around major airports. In fact, it serves each of the nation’s 10 busiest airports, so it is unlikely that the carrier would want to hedge its bets on success at smaller airports.
  4. Although Norwegian has certainly introduced a number of low-cost transatlantic flights, many feel that the “legacy” carriers still charge fares that are too expensive on these routes. While I’d certainly like to pay less to fly to Europe, I don’t entirely buy this argument: Hump Day Fare Hacks has proved that there are a number of incredible transatlantic fares out there, and 60% of the flights profiled to this point are non-Norweigan legacy carriers.

Bottom line: Whether it means establishing new routes or starting to serve existing ones, jetBlue would have to pick the right markets to enter. And while this might sound obvious, it is — in my opinion — the absolute key factor that will make or break jetBlue as a potential transatlantic carrier. Personally, I hope it will choose to undertake transatlantic operations, and I also hope that such an attempt would be fruitful for the carrier. Either way, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy flying jetBlue domestically, and I look forward to continuing to do so.