Savvy Traveler: JetBlue defies the odds and cares for its passengers

Squish them. Squeeze them. Stack them one on top of the other for a greater payload.

That might be the conversation in the board room of virtually any airline in the world and especially U.S. flag carriers. Legroom has been shrunk. Seat padding has become thinner and the average American backside needs a lubricant to slide into an airline seat.

There have been several stories in the news in the last couple of weeks about passenger rage, the equivalent of road rage, whereby airline passengers have been confronting each other, throwing cups of soda in the face of others and forcing planes to land and bump the unruly travelers.

This never happened in the “good old days” when airlines actually respected their passengers and did whatever they could to enhance the flying experience. No more.

Oh, wait. There is one bright spot in this purgatory called Air Transportation. JetBlue — recently voted the second best airline of the major carriers (missed out by three points to Virgin) in a poll by Travel Rankings — has also been given a major pat on the back by Fortune Magazine.

“Wall Street needs to cut JetBlue a little slack,” read the subhead on a recent article that noted that JetBlue, amazingly, cared for its passengers vs. the short term benefit of its travelers. Wall Street hardly gives a damn about anything but the bottom line. JetBlue believes it can enhance its bottom line by taking care of those who pay the freight.

Fortune’s main headline read: “If JetBlue is going to earn enough cash to issue a dividend, it must come from success made through its growth initiatives, not by fleecing its customers and tarnishing its brand.”

Bada bing!

While financial analysts have been attempting to pressure JetBlue to squeeze its passengers to fund large dividend payouts and big share buybacks for investors, the airline’s executives have dug in their heels and refused to go along.

JetBlue has historically owed much of its success to a customer-friendly atmosphere. Fortune notes that both gods can be served if airline executives are successful. It says JetBlue could “morph” into one similar to Spirit Airlines. Heaven forbid. Spirit is our least favorite air carrier.

Analysts are upset that JetBlue offers the most legroom on its aircraft. The so-called “Legacy Carriers,” such as United, have a pitch (leg room) of 30 inches while JetBlue offers 33 inches standard.  That allows them to stuff more seats onto the airplane.

For an extra fee, some of the Legacy Carries will offer a pitch of 34 inches. That offers the opportunity for passengers to keep their knees from jamming into their throats. JetBlue offers an upgraded economy seat pitch of 38 inches, equal to that of business class on domestic flights of the Legacy bunch.

“JetBlue’s founding mission is to bring humanity back to air travel. This is essential to creating value for our shareholders,” commented Nancy Elder, a JetBlue vice president. “Our passion for providing a compelling travel experience at great value is a key competitive advantage that has always been fundamental to our success.

“As we continue to grow responsibly and profitably through disciplined investments in the JetBlue Experience, our commitments to customers, shareholders and crew members will remain integrally connected,” Elder said.

Fortune looked at the success of Spirit in comparing the aggressiveness of the two airlines. Spirit charges passengers for carry-on and everything but use of the bathroom and air to breathe…Hold on, Spirit may not have realized they aren’t charging for those services.

In a recent month, JetBlue’s load factor was about 88 percent, lower than Spirit but higher than any of the legacy carriers which posted factors as low as 83 percent. The analysts attribute this increased use of JetBlue to value and service. Those same analysts warn that if JetBlue follows the Spirit/Legacy example, its load factor and loyalty will take a dive. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

The magazine also comments that “JetBlue’s current management wants to boost the airline’s profits by enhancing the customer experience, not by cheapening it. For some of its longer routes the carrier has introduced lie flat seats and gourmet cuisine

“If JetBlue is going to earn enough cash to issue a dividend, it must come from success made through its growth initiatives, not by fleecing its customers and tarnishing its brand,” said Fortune.

There is little doubt that JetBlue will work its way up through the loyalty and comfort of its passengers and not by dipping into their pockets or squeezing them into far less comfortable seating.  It’s too bad other airlines don’t have the same respect for passengers that JetBlue shows on a daily basis.

Bob & Sandy Nesoff are founding members of the North American Travel Journalists Association.  Bob was NATJA’s first national president.

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