Features

Interview with Robin Hayes, CEO of Jetblue

9 Aug 2022 by Hannah Brandler
Jetblue's new Mint suite

Jetblue is a low-cost US carrier which launched transatlantic flights from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports to New York last summer and added flights from Gatwick to Boston to its network last week.

In September it will launch flights from Heathrow to Boston and the airline aims to offer five daily flights between the US and the UK by October.

We caught up with chief executive officer Robin Hayes to hear about the airline’s plans for the future.

How can you convince travellers who fly with carriers such as British Airways to swap to Jetblue for transatlantic flights to New York and Boston?

If they want to pay less and have a better service, then they should fly Jetblue. First of all, from a pricing perspective our fares are usually lower. Secondly the product and service that we offer is unparalleled. Every seat in Mint (business class) is a private cabin with a door, the free wifi is hugely beneficial and we also offer live TV, giving you the ability to watch premier league football at 35,000 feet. In Core (economy class), we offer the most legroom of any transatlantic carrier.

We’ve built a great brand in the US – everyone knows who we are there. We’ve been pleased with how much UK business we’ve been able to pick up since we started flying from New York to London because we’re not known here. There’s still more demand on the US side than the UK but it’s closer to 50/50 than I had accepted.

How is Jetblue dealing with the ongoing airport chaos?

We haven’t really had issues at Heathrow or Gatwick. Our team and ground handling partners have been fully staffed throughout. There was one flight destined for Heathrow that we operated to Gatwick that day. Other than that, we’ve been largely unaffected by what’s been going on.

What’s interesting is the issues that you’re having here are different to those in the US. We don’t really have issues with airport staffing or TSA in the US. The issues are really infrastructure, air traffic control, pilot attrition… Whereas in the UK, you have lots of issues with staffing – I think Brexit is part of that. People could previously come from the EU and work in these airports but a lot of people went back because of Covid.

You’re boosting transatlantic services from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports this winter. Are there plans for services from other UK airports in the future?

We wanted to start with Gatwick and Heathrow because London is the number one market that we hadn’t yet flown to. Certainly, we are very open to other UK regional airports. My sense is, as we get to 2023 and beyond, we’ll turn our attention to both other regional UK markets but also other European destinations.

Jetblue CEO Robin Hayes

You recently reached an agreement for the US$3.8 bn acquisition of Spirit Airlines, with aims to create a “national low-fare challenger” to the US airline industry’s Big Four (American, United, Delta and Southwest Airlines). Can you tell us a bit more about those plans?

We have a very strong franchise where we fly but we don’t have a truly national presence. We’re strong in the northeast, Florida and the Caribbean, but there’s a number of markets that we still don’t fly to.

The goal behind the acquisition of Spirit – to make a bigger Jetblue – will take us from 5-6 per cent market share to about 9 per cent. It’s still a long way behind the Big Four but it puts us in a better position to compete on a more national level and add more service to destinations that we’re in today such as Detroit, Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles.

Once fully merged, what will the product look like? 

Jetblue. We are acquiring Spirit for the planes, trained staff and access to gates and slots. There will be things that Spirit does, such as airport automation, that we could definitely learn from. But the product and experience would be Jetblue.

Your second-quarter earnings results showed a significant loss. What are the reasons for this and how can you improve for the future, especially considering the rising costs of fuel?

The miss to what analysts expected was high fuel. If you look across all US airlines, they had similar issues in Q2. We’ve forecast a profit for Q3, our first since Covid started. We feel good and can continue to build margins going forward.

Leisure demand is more than 100 per cent recovered. Business travel is around 70 to 80 per cent of normal – I’m not sure that will fully come back but there’s new forms of travel that are being created.

People are extending their trips, for instance, so there’s this trend of fewer but longer trips.

Yes, there was always this thing of people taking weekend trips – flying on Friday and back on Sunday – but there’s only so much capacity. [With extended trips] if you work from the destination on Friday and Monday, that’s going to spread that weekend demand, and could be a positive development for airlines.

What is Jetblue doing to address the challenge of climate change?

We have a commitment to convert 10 per cent of our total fuel usage to sustainable aviation fuel by 2030. In the US, we also offset all the CO2 emissions of our customers.

We also have a massive fleet renewal programme underway with A321 and A220 neo aircraft, which are about 20 per cent more fuel efficient than others. A couple of years ago we also moved our ground equipment at JFK airport over to electric – we will be rolling that across to other airports.

The trouble with sustainable aviation fuel is its availability.

You’re absolutely right, the biggest challenge with SAF is the scaleability of it and it’s a very fragmented industry at the moment.

The good news is the recent bill which the democrats have proposed in the US. There’s an SAF-specific blender’s tax credit, which is an incentive for SAF manufacturers. That’s a good start.

How does the True Blue loyalty programme work?

Actually, it was the first spend-based earn and burn programme. You earn based on what you spend and then you redeem based on the price of the ticket. The idea was to allow people to redeem on any flight. If a seat is available for sale, then it’s available for points. That was the genesis of the programme.

Now with our Northeast alliance with American Airlines, we have reciprocal benefits for our customers on AA flights and likewise for AAdvantage members flying with Jetblue.

Will Jetblue add lounges to its network?

We don’t offer a lounge today but it’s definitely something we are looking at it. The reality is that because the tickets are thousands of dollars less, we focus on the onboard service. But we recognise the lounge issue and that it’s something we need to keep under review.

Business Traveller has reported in detail on the carrier’s transatlantic seating and inflight service – for more information see:

jetblue.com

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