A MARKETING REPORTER'S JOURNEY INTO AIRWORLD
Kicking Off a Three Week Daily Series
JetBlue was the first low-fare carrier to rebrand flying as a “cheap chic” experience. Southwest may have become an industry giant with the no-frills formula its executives feel they perfected back in the '70s (57 consecutive profitable quarters can’t be wrong, can they?), but JetBlue is the first of Southwest’s descendants to evolve the formula and to arguably make flying JetBlue a sign of one’s good taste.
Thanks to a combination of technological innovations (the seatback satellite TV), an extraordinarily high level of customer service and espirt de corps, and a dollop of style (the new Airbus planes, with their leather seats, the Terra Blue chips), the JetBlue brand transcended the airline industry. The architect David Rockwell, who is designing the interiors of JetBlue’s new $875 million terminal, compares -- with a straight face -- JetBlue to the iPod (the ne plus ultra of compliments.) JetBlue, a low-fare carrier, is not the least expensive fare on many of its flights. Thanks to a superior product and brand, JetBlue has actually regained at least a little of its power to set prices. In an Orbitz-, Expedia- and Travelocity-powered marketplace of near-perfect information about low fares, I would argue this is a fairly significant development.
One of the premises I hope to test on this trip is the idea that the “trading up” phenomenon described in the book of the same name is finally beginning to appear in the airline industry years after sweeping through many retail products. At the low-fare end of the market, JetBlue and Song are building sleek brands that are recasting air travel as a lifestyle experience rather than simply cheap transport from A to B. At the high end
I began the day with a cab ride to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where JetBlue currently occupies Terminal 6, the former home of National Airlines built around 40 years ago by I.M. Pei. Next door is Eero Saarinen’s iconic and deserted TWA terminal, behind which JetBlue will build its new terminal starting next month and due to be finished by 2008.
Inside the terminal, my JetBlue baby-sitter for the day, Bryan, was waiting. He would fly with me down to Orlando, Fla., and accompany me on a tour of the airline’s $25 million pilot and flight crew training center, which opened this summer next door to the similarly new $22 million hangar where the fleet’s seatback TVs are installed. (This was the price I paid for the complimentary flight.)
Bryan gamely allowed me to wander the terminal for a while to see the sights before our flight. While on the one hand it’s overcrowded -- JetBlue is spending another $25 million on temporary gates to tide passenger traffic over until the new terminal opens -- JetBlue’s terminal also houses a day spa and sushi bar (where the chef was already beginning to prep at 9 a.m.).
|JetBlue takes off beyond a flightline of Southwest airliners. JetBlue took Southwest's successful marketing concept and evolved it into a lifestyle sell.
I wanted to ask at least one person why they chose to fly JetBlue, and rather than ask the usual suspects (college students, families likely to be on their way to Florida with me) I approached what had to be the sharpest-dressed man in the terminal, resplendent in a pin-striped suit with pocket square and equipped with handsomely battered luggage. You’re obviously a business traveler, I asked. Why are you flying JetBlue?
'You don't screw things up'
“You know,” he said, “I was sitting next to a senior operations guy for the airline on my last flight, and he asked me the same thing. I told him ‘You don’t screw things up.’”
The well-dressed man was David B. Stetson, managing partner of Burlington, Vt.-based D.B. Stetson & Associates (“Catalysts for Growth,” his card said), and he listed his favorite aspects of the airline: “Being on time, and just the sheer operational competence.”
He went on. “Most flights I take on JetBlue are too short to be about the TV. I just read something I bring along. If I fly coast-to-coast, then I’ll fly United and request an upgrade. But I don’t want to fly any other carrier if I can’t fly first class. I’d be interested in a premium JetBlue product -- a different class flight.”
Did you voice this desire to the JetBlue exec you bumped into? I ask. And what did he think of that, considering how obsessed JetBlue is with streamlined operations (introducing a first-class cabin is an operational headache that low-fare-carriers expressly want to avoid)?
“What I told them was to start another brand completely, pitched at customers like me. Any flight under two hours, I’ll fly JetBlue right now. But I’d want more for longer flights. I’d also like Starbucks coffee on the flight, and I’ll pay more to get it. But they’ve never screwed me, and in the end, I fly them for that.”
'The JetBlue Experience'
After I entered the cabin for my own flight to Orlando, I began what Bryan called "the JetBlue experience," which for me means that I am gobbling smoked almonds and trying not to be distracted by a Jerry Springer retrospective on VH1 as I write this first entry.
All of the little JetBlue touches were on display: the serendipity of channel surfing live TV, the bountiful bags of nonperishable snack food and the chipper staff.
A JetBlue car picked us up from Orlando International and drove us to the edge of the airport, to “JetBlue U.,” where a steadily increasing percentage of the airline’s pilots and flight crew were trained. The place is barely three months old, but plans are already on the drawing board to knock down one of the walls to make room for more flight simulators at $25 million per. In size and appearance, the devices resemble nothing so much as lunar landers.
The classrooms for flight crew would be overflowing soon, too, it seemed. The airline hired somewhere between 400 to 500 crew members last year, would add 600 this year and was looking at 900 more next year.
The reason? The imminent arrival on Aug. 14 of JetBlue’s first E190 jet from Embraer, the Brazilian aerospace consortium and the continuing rebound of air travel. The dramatic drop-off in passenger traffic following 9/11 is over for now (barring some new disaster). Among other things, JetBlue's frantic expansion plans tell us that as a country, we are no longer afraid to fly.
That horiffic September day’s biggest economic victims were the airlines, which have collectively lost more than $30 billion since then. The aftermath of 9/11 -- the Iraq invasion and resulting spike in oil prices -- is still hang as a potential threat to dismantle the industry as we know it.
As I continue my contemplation of the JetBlue experience in its larger context, I also take the time to WiFi my way to Jason Brown's "Sleeping in Airports," the online resource for anyone interested in crashing overnight at their local terminal. I’ve been reading up on Los Angeles International Airport, which isn’t likely to prove as accommodating as this one in Orlando. Last night, following Brown’s advice, I found the leather couch hidden behind the Hyatt’s ballroom. And behind that, I found an even more obscure carpeted corridor where I could hide. Grabbing one of the cushions from the couch, I slipped on my eyeshade and put in my earplugs, popped two Tylenol PM and sprawled on the floor.
Security guard's toe
I slept well enough ... until the hotel’s security guard nudged me awake with his toe. He suggested I try the terminal level “just find a corner and sleep there, but you can’t stay in the hotel” but I opted for plan B, a quiet spot near the baggage claim, which didn’t fire up until 7 a.m..
Why was I sleeping in the airport? Well, the answer is not exactly clear, even as it is in keeping with the overall spirit of this project, in which I plan to physically integrate myself into the landscape of Airworld. It isn’t about money; it’s about point-making-masochism.
I suppose I'm underscoring the essential inhumanity of airports -- they’re extremely efficient at processing passengers from the curb to the gates, but should you choose to stick around, well, the tile gets pretty cold at night. Still, maybe it’s a sign that I’m finally acclimating to my new bizarre existence. Or maybe there are more Hyatts, Hiltons, Sheratons and Ramadas in my future. Stay tuned to find out.