An Airbus A320 operated by JetBlue.

Who remembers the time of large seats, fancy five-star meals, and casual, spacious comfort in the air? I don’t; except for in first class, it hasn’t been around for a while. But as airlines have adapted to an era with more flying than ever (until the recession), rising fuel costs, and greater interdependence, many here in the United States have opted to strip service down to a bare-bones “seat in the sky” sans any perks. JetBlue Airways, however, a “low-cost” carrier based in New York City, is strangely different. Free cable television, snacks, and a checked bag come with a standard ticket. But this isn’t an advertisement. This is an exploration of why other airlines don’t offer these amenities. What do other airlines have that JetBlue doesn’t?

The largest commercial carriers, including American Airlines, United, U.S. Airways and Delta, have slowly but surely tried to pack as much profit into a plane as possible. This means no more peanuts or pillows, leg room or luggage (free, that is). There is a new culture of charging extra: in addition to the classic blatant socioeconomic stratification of “First”, “Business”, and the euphemistically named “Economy” class, passengers now have to pull out their credit cards to purchase headphones, pillows, extra legroom, preferred seats, inflight snacks or meals, movies, and the luxury of checking  a bag or two. Meanwhile, the number of major airlines has dwindled as take-overs abound: United recently ate ContinentalDelta did the same with Northwest, and U.S. Airways has unhinged its jaw waiting to swallow American. Given fewer competitors and growing alliances, the major airlines have remained profitable by mutually raising costs and stripping perks.

But then there’s JetBlue, which offers low prices and perks. Why don’t other airlines feel threatened?

The reason is simple: there are two things JetBlue lacks that other airlines take for granted: 1) a multitude of destinations and 2) alliance membership. Airlines make a lot of money from their “frequent flyers”, the people like me who have nothing better to do than sit in planes for hours on end multiple times a year. JetBlue flies to fewer airports than other airlines, and is not part of any major alliance. The three main alliances, SkyTeam, OneWorld, and Star Alliance, tie together a number of carriers worldwide to allow passengers to gain mileage and priority benefits from other member carriers, making flying more comfortable and affordable. This is not to say that JetBlue does not have agreements with a number of international airlines, which it does – but their lack of alliance membership, coupled with their less-than-stellar destination map, hurts them here in America.

To see why, let’s take U.S. Airways and United. Both are part of Star Alliance, so a frequent flyer on one carrier can get miles flying the other whenever they want. What this means is a United flyer can choose to fly U.S. Airways or United for the same benefits. Why would they do that? Because every airline doesn’t fly everywhere, and passengers pick the most affordable and time-effective flight, which is easier for them to do with more than one airline. Not only does JetBlue not fly all over America, its lack of relationships with other local airlines (save a few routes with American) also makes it an unattractive option for flyers. Compare JetBlue’s route map with both United’s and U.S. Airways’ – it doesn’t hold water to even one of them, let alone both combined. “Oh, the places you can go!” the site states as the map loads. Then you see that there are not very many of them. If someone wants to fly often and needs flexibility with where their miles can take them, JetBlue isn’t a viable choice.

So JetBlue appeals to a unique niche of customer – one flying into or out of a certain set of cities who can’t pay much for his or her ticket but is drawn to the unique appeal of a flight experience much better than what the others offer. For an infrequent flyer who doesn’t have very many places to go, JetBlue makes more than a lot of sense. But for a constant traveler, JetBlue, alone in the air, isn’t an airline that can stick. Cable channels are wonderful, but aren’t too helpful when an airline doesn’t fly to a large portion of the country. The question that remains is this: Will other airlines eventually adopt the JetBlue model of comfort in the sky? Or will JetBlue choose to expand and cut corners like the others? Right now, JetBlue is making money, while American filed for Chapter 11 some time ago. Which model is ultimately more tenable?

PHOTO CREDIT: Ole Simon, via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jetblue_Airbus_A320_%22Blue_Yorker%22_Simon.jpg

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