JetBlue Airways burst onto the U.S. domestic airline scene 15 years ago with bigger and more comfortable seats, livable 34-inch seat pitches (pitch is the distance between seats), free inflight entertainment and TV in every seat, and generous checked baggage policies — and when it got a heap of slots at the JFK airport, many hardcore travelers flocked to the airline.
Founded by a former Southwest executive, it was a sort of shining moon to Southwest’s shining sun at a time when airlines were disappointing and stranding passengers almost routinely. Newspaper articles and Internet columns lauded the airline, with many pundits hoping against hope that the airline would lead the industry to fulfill JetBlue’s tagline to “bring humanity back to air travel.”
The airline was rewarded for differentiating itself, as it actually posted a profit in the early 2000s when the rest of the airline industry was floundering. To many passengers and industry watchers, it seemed like the good guys were going to win.
Which is why it has come as such a bruising disappointment to so many that JetBlue is now abandoning many, if not all, of the practices that made it a darling of many serious travelers for the past decade and a half.
Joe Brancatelli extracts the sordid details in an article tellingly titled JetBlue defects to the dark side. Gone will be the free checked bags for everyone, Airbus 320s will be reconfigured to stuff 15 more chairs inside, and the comfortable leather seats will be replaced by harder and less forgiving “slimline” seats. Additional fees for items passengers now enjoy as part of their fare on JetBlue (but almost nowhere else) seem likely.
Things aren’t getting better elsewhere. In fact, Delta is introducing a new class of service it’s calling “Basic Economy,” but it’s more like “Sub-Economy” if you ask me. The new class will not allow flight changes, seat upgrades, refunds of any kind or a way to redeem unused tickets. Tired of dealing with passenger rights and comfort, Delta is going to make it explicit in its fare structure: its lowest fares buy you neither rights nor comfort.
Domestic U.S. airlines are not alone in this race to the bottom. Once highly regarded Lufthansa has been shifting many of its operations to its low-cost subsidiary Germanwings, which inspired infamous Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary to target the German market as a good place to stake out new business. He recently dismissed Lufthansa and Germanwings as a threat to his own airline, saying, “Some engineers and doctors get together in Frankfurt and decide around a green table that they’ll found a low-cost airline; that’s just not enough.” Put another way, O’Leary’s argument is basically that “you want to race to the bottom, but we’re already here.”
And it can get worse. Last winter, O’Leary pushed a class of service in which passengers would stand during flight in order to allow even more capacity on planes, ha. Well, it turns out it is not really a joke; an Italian company has made a standing airplane seat that offers only 23 inches of pitch per row. A click through this slideshow will show how little fun it looks like — though it is probably only a matter of time before we see these on commercial airlines. Build it and they will come.
Before that, O’Leary also “joked” about charging folks to use toilets on Ryanair planes, then announced he wanted to remove two of the three toilets from its aircraft to make room for six additional seats.
Despite the abundant evidence that the race to the, er, bottom was pretty much industry-wide, the blogosphere was still set to spinning a bit when JetBlue announced its recent changes. The New Yorker weighed in with the provocatively titled Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer, an interesting study in upside-down incentives. The premise is essentially that the airlines want to charge fees for a lot of stuff, so they have to make their basic products miserable enough that folks want to pay a bit extra to escape the misery.
I admit that this point of view resonates with me; on numerous occasions I have bit on online check-in upsells to board earlier or to get a tiny bit more legroom. If there were sufficient overhead space, or better checked bag policies, or an inch more legroom, I probably wouldn’t spend the extra few bucks on these last-minute “upgrades.”
Skift responded directly to the New Yorker’s take on the cruel airlines, shifting the blame away from airlines and onto passengers for racing to the bottom themselves by making travel purchases based wholly on price: “Ultimately, the reason airlines cram us into tiny seats and upcharge for everything is that we’re out there on Expedia and Kayak, shopping on exactly one dimension: the price of the flight.”
And this hits close to home as well; certainly whenever most folks search on flights, we are sorting by price first, almost without exception.
I think fixing blame in this case is far more complex, however. Sure, I search on price first when I research airfares, but that’s in large part because very few airlines — and now even fewer with JetBlue’s changes — offer many other incentives to pick their flight over their competitors’. In the almost two decades I have been writing about air travel, nearly every reduction in service introduced by one airline was eventually copied by all the other airlines. If they are all offering the same substandard product with almost no differentiation, why not purchase based on price alone?
Additionally, the way flights are presented makes it tricky to make a booking decision based on anything but price at first; most booking engines and airline websites show us price and schedule up front, and bury all the fees and possible amenities several clicks deep. For the most part, this is intentional; the airlines don’t want us to think about fees until well after we have been hooked on price. But as a result seat availability, baggage fees, carry-on policies and more are made almost invisible until a purchase is almost complete — by which time you just buy the dang ticket.
A few sites such as Expedia and TripAdvisor Flights have started adding baggage fees to the initial fare display, which is a step in the right direction. It would be interesting if more of these first searches included fees by airline, or even multiple fares based on marginally different classes of service (upgradeability, boarding zone, etc.); I think a lot more travelers might buy at higher price points if they could see some of this information early in the booking process.
But it would have to be clear — even now it takes a veteran travel agent to understand fare classes, yeesh. Southwest does some of this, and it is a huge part of why Southwest has so many extremely loyal customers; travelers I know will endure somewhat onerous connections on Southwest over taking a direct flight on a cattle-car airline.
Finally, in the much bigger picture, a historic shift in corporate values away from paying customers and toward paying shareholders is a big driver here. To circle back to JetBlue, their recent changes were in large part inspired by Wall Street accusing the airline of being “an overly brand-conscious and customer focused-airline.” As the company’s stock wavered, airline execs responded with the changes outlined above, and Wall Street immediately cheered them on; JetBlue shares surged more than 20 percent. For airlines being traded on the stock market, the shareholder, and not the passenger, is the customer who is to be made happy and comfortable.
In “JetBlue defects to the dark side,” Joe Brancatelli notes that most of the previous airlines that joined the race to the bottom usually ended up in oblivion. That doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone out of the race these days, however, taking all of us with them. I’ll see you soon in our standing seats, and I’ll bring a few quarters in case one of us has to use the loo.