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JetBlue Cuts Legroom, Doubles Down on Distraction

JetBlue’s principal claim to fame has long been its relatively roomy coach seats. Sure, the airline has been ahead of the curve in onboard WiFi, and inflight entertainment generally. And there’s that undeniable cool factor to flying Blue that American and Delta just can’t match. But JetBlue’s substantive edge came from its willingness to put passenger comfort ahead of company profit, fitting its Airbus A320s with fewer seats and thereby giving every flyer a bit of extra space.

As it has been boasting for years: “JetBlue offers the most legroom in coach based on average fleet-wide seat pitch for U.S. airlines.” In the extensive catalog of vacuous airline marketing hyperbole, that stands out as a meaningful promise. And even more so for being true, as it has been with JetBlue.

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With the first redesign of JetBlue’s aircraft interiors since the airline started service in 2000, that claim will still be valid. But only barely.

More Seats, Less Comfort

According to JetBlue’s latest update on the cabin redesign, released this week, “The restyled cabin will enhance the JetBlue experience to meet the needs of travelers today, including a greater focus on connectivity, comfort, and space.” Connectivity, yes. Comfort and space? Absolutely not.

On the airline’s A320s—which comprise the bulk of its fleet—the number of seats will increase from 150 to 162, in the process reducing pitch (the distance between seats) from 33 inches to 32 inches in most rows.

On most of JetBlue’s newer A321s, capacity will also be increased, from 190 to 200 seats, with a comparable deterioration in pitch. (A321s with JetBlue’s Mint seats will retain their current layout.)

The reconfiguration, or “densification” as it’s more revealingly referred to in industry parlance, is scheduled to be completed in 2019.

More Inflight Entertainment, More Distraction

Naturally, the JetBlue news release buries the less-comfort-in-coach news under a slew of upgrades to its inflight entertainment system, delivering what the airline calls “The First Fully Connected In-Seat Experience.” What that means:

  • New Android-based streaming TV system, supporting live streaming, on-demand video, and personal device pairing
  • Expanded DirecTV channels (from 36 to more than 100)
  • New 10-inch seat-back TV screens (up from 5.6 inches)
  • Gate-to-gate high-speed WiFi access
  • AC power outlets with USB ports at every seat

Attempting to offset the comfort downgrade with a tech upgrade is arguably a savvy business move. But investing in larger seat-back TVs, when travelers are increasingly using their own mobile devices to keep themselves entertained during flights? That seems like a misreading of an obvious consumer trend and a step in the wrong direction. And in any case, distraction is a poor substitute for real seat-of-the-pants comfort.

This isn’t the first time JetBlue has capitulated to pressure from Wall Street to squeeze more revenue-per-flight. In June of last year, the carrier abandoned one of its other signature benefits—free checked bags—and began charging most customers $20 or more to check the first bag.

Nor is JetBlue alone in cramming ever-more seats into its planes, in spite of the fact that flyers are getting taller and wider. As reported in Business Traveller, Lufthansa’s latest order of A320 neo jets will feature seat pitch of just 29.1 inches, less than the 29.9 inches on notoriously bare-bones Ryanair.

The densification trend is real. Sadly for its loyal customers, JetBlue has decided to be a participant, not a holdout.

Reader Reality Check

Do JetBlue’s entertainment enhancements compensate for the loss in legroom?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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