Blue Skies for JetBlue

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We've all heard about crazy airlines. Like those that keep you on a plane for eight hours — on the ground. Or others that charge seemingly insane prices for 500-mile puddle-jumps. And almost every carrier continues to tell passengers the plane will take off on time — we all know how sane that is. But no airline, its seems, is as loony as JetBlue Airways.

First they started flying their low-fare, high-quality service from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, which most citizens in Manhattan think of as about as close as Greenland. Then they decided to use Airbus A320 airplanes for their airline — another odd move, given that the industry thought Airbus planes were too expensive and burned too much fuel for a reasonably-priced carrier to make money. Then JetBlue became the first — and only — U.S. airline to give you your own TV set in coach (really, a screen in the seatback in front of you, but with 24 channels of real live satellite TV) and charge you nothing for the privilege of being an airborne coach potato.

They're not done. Not content with flying New Yorkers up and down the East Coast, JetBlue started the first low-fare, non-stop transcontinental service from JFK to California — and this week they announced that it would start flying from Washington's Dulles International Airport — an airport it doesn't even serve at the moment — to Oakland and Long Beach, California.


What America needs is more craziness like JetBlue is offering. The rest of the industry gasps every time it hears JetBlue makes a move: "What's wrong with these guys?" At the beginning, the experts simply waited for JetBlue to fold, as virtually every other start-up airline with aspirations of major success has done since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978. After a few months, when JetBlue was still lurking about (and expanding its routes: it now flies to 14 cities from JFK, including Orlando, Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake City and upstate New York), the rivals just matched JetBlue's fares and waited until the competitive pressure drove JetBlue to close up shop.

Sorry, fellas, it might be a while. While the industry suffered its worst spring since the dawn of jet flight, JetBlue is making money and on track to carry three million passengers this year. That's just a drop in the 670-million-passenger airline biz bucket, but it's enough to keep the airline growing and adding planes and flights. At low, low prices — tickets from JFK to its newest city, New Orleans, start at $69 one way, and even last-minute fares (where the big carriers usually start using commas in their prices) to Oakland top out at $299 one-way.

Part of the JetBlue appeal is price — the rest is attitude. When's the last time you heard a flight attendant applauded? I did, on a JetBlue flight from Rochester, N.Y. to JFK. The cabin crew is pleasant without being too rah-rah, and efficient without being brusque. (It helps that they're not that busy, because JetBlue only serves funky snacks like blue potato chips and chocolate chip cookies, not the "real" meals that other airlines sling.)

And of course the likeability of the crew is greatly helped by the fact that their airline rarely gives them bad news to pass on to passengers: JetBlue's on-time record is among the best in the business. (On my two flights last month we got in five minutes early on one leg, and 15 on the other.)

There are still a lot of potential obstacles out there for JetBlue. The carrier is still small enough to care about customers and avoid the labor problems that hinder many large airlines, but its recent expansionism throws up red flags: Growth for an airline frequently spells trouble for its customers. JetBlue is also dealing with hardball business tactics from other carriers, and the more the newcomer expands, the more opponents it will attract. And the harder the big boys will play.

JetBlue's core strategy is as old as business itself: Keep costs low. Non-union labor, a small 15-plane fleet and secondary airports like Long Beach instead of LAX allows JetBlue to price their flights at their main audience — namely, folks that would normally be going from Rochester to New York City by bus. (JetBlue's growing reputation for punctuality is also starting to attract the business set.)

The rapidly increasing size of JetBlue's would seem, by the airline business' conventional wisdom, to run counter to that strategy. But if the airline remains as unorthodox — and successful — as it has been so far, the big carriers will be trying to pin JetBlue down for a long time to come.