JetBlue: All-Coach No More

Since its founding in 1999, JetBlue has staked out a place for itself midway between the no-frills low-cost carriers and the legacy full-service airlines. Prices are good, if rarely rock bottom. And although the airline has no first class and lacks an extensive network of airport lounges, its coach seating boasts more legroom than most other carriers, and its live TV inflight entertainment was brag-worthy.

Although the airline enjoys fierce loyalty among certain flyers, it was never going to be all things to all people. And competition has eroded its initial advantages. The full-service airlines have consolidated and streamlined, undermining JetBlue's cost advantage and ability to price-compete. And the "new and innovative" mantle JetBlue once owned has been largely usurped by Virgin America.

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Apparently acknowledging the limitations of its longtime business strategy, the airline made a surprise announcement at this week's Global Business Travel Association convention: Beginning in the second quarter of 2014, its nonstop flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco will feature first-class cabins outfitted with 16 lie-flat seats. Fourteen of the seats will be side-by-side; two will be single seats in "private suites."

(There's a computer-generated video of the new interior here.)

The move will put JetBlue in head-to-head competition for premium-class flyers with American, United, Delta, and Virgin America, all of which offer frequent transcon flights with premium seating geared toward business travelers.

According to JetBlue, there are currently more than 6,000 passengers flying the two routes daily, and they're "charged much higher fares on these routes on a per-mile basis." That spells opportunity to JetBlue chief David Barger: "Transcontinental routes have had high premium fares we believe we can beat. By offering our own, unique seats and enriched service elements that will include some soon-to-be-announced partnerships, we are creating a one-of-a-kind experience that will serve this market in a way only JetBlue can."

While business travelers flying on the company dime may be winners, coach passengers will have less to look forward to as they pass through first class on their way to the rear of the plane. An Associated Press story is reporting that the 34-inch seat pitch (distance between seats) will be reduced to 33 inches to accommodate the new lie-flat seats. "Even More Space" will be downgraded to Somewhat Less Space.

Reader Reality Check

Will JetBlue's new transcon service—either the premium seating or the downgrade to coach legroom—be a difference-maker for you?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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