JetBlue is set to launch its transatlantic service between New York’s JFK and London Heathrow Aug. 11. But that plan, first announced in 2019 before travel in the time of coronavirus, may be flying into some turbulence.
The carrier reportedly says it intends to operate daily flights through August, but in September plans to scale back to just four-times weekly.
Flights will operate aboard JetBlue’s new Airbus A321 Long Range (LR) aircraft with 24 redesigned Mint suites, 117 core seats and the sleek and spacious Airspace cabin interior. The airline is set to take delivery of three A321LRs in 2021, all operating on the JFK routes.
The announcement of the September cutbacks following the August launch has left some in the industry questioning the airline’s strategy. While JetBlue has not directly addressed the reasons for the reduction in JFK-LHR frequencies, airline executives did offer some insights during the July 27 earnings call.
First, JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes told analysts, there is the macro travel environment, which continues to be marked by uncertainty and confusion. This week the Biden administration announced that US borders would remain closed to non-essential inbound travelers, regardless of vaccination status. This, as both the UK and Canada adopt less restrictive policies for fully-vaccinated American travelers.
“We’ve all been very frustrated that the corridor haven’t opened,” Hayes said; “It’s not data-driven because there’s many other countries where there are lower vaccination rates that are open.”
As a result, he continued, “We are planning schedule adjustments for this fall to match the current demand environment and once a path to the border reopening is clear, we expect demand to bounce back quickly, just as it has in the rest of our network.”
Another factor is the timing of the new service. The rebound in travel during the summer months has been unusually resilient, according to the airline’s president and COO Joanna Geraghty. “We’ve been pleased to see a stronger than expected leisure recovery through summer and, looking further ahead, we are optimistic for business travel to show a more robust recovery post Labor Day.”
Still the expected uptick in business travel has been a long time coming since the vaccines were approved for emergency use in December. Instead, many corporations are taking a go-slow attitude about returning to the road, making the outlook for fall even less clear-cut.
“That said,” Geraghty added, “we will remain flexible, given the potential for future demand volatility due to variants and the course of the pandemic.”
In addition, Hayes noted September for JetBlue has “historically always been our most challenging month. That combined with sort of some uncertainty around the pace of corporate travel,” he explained, “we certainly don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in setting expectations.”
Finally, there are operational consideration for JetBlue. To stand up any new long-haul service requires a number of certification steps. For example, to be fully certified for transatlantic extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards, or ETOPS, all flight crews on the route must do an actual round trip qualification flight.
“There is a lot of training events that go with this type of flying that we need to get through,” Hayes said. “We do expect to successfully complete our ETOPS certification. We will continue with our first flight August 11. We will fly our schedule every day, per plan initially.”
Once those requirements are met, Hayes said the airline will have more flexibility to adjust the transatlantic schedule in response to both demand and external factors. According to Hayes, “The plan is, we’re looking at September to bring down some of the flying and then we’ll continue to review on a month-by-month basis.”
Initially the airline had also planned nonstop service between New York-JFK and London Gatwick to start Sept. 29, and another London service from Boston in summer 2022. The decision to reduce the LHR frequency may throw into question the announced London Gatwick connection. And right now, the Boston service in summer 2022 still looks like a long way off.