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Is JetBlue Adding a First Class?

By Erik Torkells
updated February 21, 2017

Just as our March issue was being printed--it won't come out for a couple of weeks--I read in Travel Weekly that JetBlue might be making me look, well, wrong. In my March Editor's Letter, I bemoaned the barrage of choices a traveler has to make these days. It comes down to the same choice over and over again: Namely, should you pay more for a better experience (at the airport, on the plane, at the hotel, on the cruise ship, etc.)? I suggested that one reason people have such favorable impressions of JetBlue and Southwest is because the airlines are single-class; there's no one at the front getting better treatment, and you never have to do that awful walk through business class on your way to your seat in the back.

Last week, in a conference call with investors, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman talked about the airline's recent move to get rid of a row of seats on its A320 planes. By doing so, the airline is able to give everyone aboard at least 34 inches of legroom, and some will have 36 inches; the benefit for the airline is that it can put one fewer flight attendant on the plane, per FAA regulations, which will save the airline about $30 million a year. That's commendable (unless you're a flight attendant facing a heavier workload). But then Neeleman said, "We're convinced that some of the highest-paying customers out there don't fly JetBlue today because we don't provide them a first-class section or seats at the last minute, and we're going to roll out programs that will be attractive to them."

When someone asked Neeleman if fares would be raised as result of the increased legroom, he replied, "Well, we certainly don't expect to charge lower fares, that's for sure. We have tremendous leverage with our customers and we haven't used it. And we want to be low-fare, we want to offer a really great experience at a low fare, but to think that we're not going to get some additional revenue from this amazing seat pitch we have compared to other airlines, I mean, we are, and we've got some programs that we're going to roll out shortly that we think are going to add to the attraction to flying on JetBlue to those people who pay the most money. So stay tuned."

I'd never argue that companies shouldn't have tiers of service; paying more to get more is a fundamental principle of the service economy. But what has happened in recent years is that a company will introduce a special new level of service, then turn around and starting making the basic level--the one that doesn't cost extra--a little shabbier, then even a little shabbier than that. Treating someone better doesn't have to mean treating someone else worse, and yet that's what tends to happen. Let's hope JetBlue, which has a sterling customer-service record up to now--doesn't blow it.

Besides, if business travelers (what Neeleman means by "highest-paying customers") don't fly JetBlue, it probably has more to do with the airline's relatively unremarkable frequent-flier program.

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