More than two years ago, JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) first hinted at the possibility of using Airbus' (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) A321LR model to begin flying to Europe. Since then, it has continued to talk about this potential opportunity but hasn't taken any action toward launching European service.
JetBlue is scheduled to hold its biennial investor meeting in New York next week. This would be as good a time as any to formally announce plans to enter the transatlantic market -- even though those flights would not begin until at least 2020. The upside of such a move appears to far outweigh the potential risk, yet it remains unclear whether JetBlue is ready to make a final decision.
JetBlue sees an opportunity
JetBlue's interest in the transatlantic market owes a lot to Airbus' decision to develop a longer-range variant of its popular A321neo. The A321LR will be able to fly up to 4,000 nautical miles. After adjusting for "real-life" factors such as headwinds and required fuel reserves, that's still enough to support nonstop flights between the Northeast U.S. and many points in Western Europe.
Compared to the wide-body aircraft that fly most transatlantic routes today, the A321LR will have dramatically lower acquisition costs and per-trip operating costs. JetBlue also would reap substantial synergies in terms of pilot training, crew management, and maintenance due to the A321LR's commonality with the A320-family planes that are the backbone of JetBlue's fleet.
Transatlantic A321LR flights would therefore have an attractive cost profile for JetBlue. The carrier also is bullish about the revenue potential of such routes.
While an influx of long-haul budget carriers has driven down economy fares in the transatlantic market, business fares remain sky high. This has helped pad the legacy carrier's unit revenue. For example, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) achieved an astounding 11.2% unit revenue gain in the transatlantic market last quarter.
Indeed, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes noted at a conference a few weeks ago that business-class fares between New York and London can be as high as $10,000 one way. JetBlue could make its mark by undercutting those fares while still providing excellent service, just as it has with its popular -- and highly profitable -- "Mint" service for domestic transcontinental flights. Hayes has hinted in the past that JetBlue would configure any A321LRs with significantly more premium seats than the 16 lie-flat seats found on each of its Mint-equipped A321s.
Flights to Europe will also solidify JetBlue's position in Boston
Aside from the potentially lucrative opportunity for JetBlue to undercut rivals on business-class fares to Europe, entering the transatlantic market also would serve an important strategic purpose for JetBlue by shoring up its leadership position in Boston.
Boston is JetBlue's No. 2 focus city, behind the carrier's hometown of New York. Yet whereas Delta and United Continental are both larger than JetBlue in the New York area, JetBlue is the largest airline in Boston, with roughly 31% market share. This has allowed it to capture quite a bit of high-fare business traffic, whereas in New York, it's primarily a leisure carrier.
JetBlue currently serves 40 of the top 50 markets from Boston. Several of the largest markets that it does not serve are in Europe. Beginning transatlantic service with Airbus' A321LR would help JetBlue better meet Boston-based travelers' needs, which is particularly important for winning lucrative corporate travel contracts.
The stakes are high because Delta Air Lines has been mounting a challenge to JetBlue in Boston lately. Delta is steadily adding new markets there and operated 112 peak-day departures in Boston this summer. On Oct. 1, it will begin nonstop service to Philadelphia and Las Vegas, filling two of the largest remaining gaps in its Boston route network. This will give it 51 nonstop routes in Boston compared to about 70 for JetBlue.
Delta's biggest competitive advantage in Boston is that it can offer business travelers access to a global route network, including nonstop flights to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. For JetBlue, the best path toward turning Boston into a lucrative, defensible fortress hub begins with adding nonstop service to the most important business travel destinations in Europe.
Is management ready to commit?
JetBlue's management has repeatedly said that it won't be rushed into making a decision on transatlantic flights. Hayes (the CEO) also has said that he wants to be "stealthy" in light of the potential for a competitive response from legacy carriers like Delta.
However, the lead time for converting A321neo orders to the A321LR model is about two years. This means competitors will have plenty of warning that JetBlue is coming. It also means that factors such as economic conditions, the supply/demand balance, and fuel costs could all change dramatically between the time the airline orders A321LRs from Airbus and the earliest it could begin service to Europe. It will never be possible to project the profitability of a European expansion initiative with anything close to 100% certainty.
JetBlue already is missing out on a period of strong transatlantic demand because it has hesitated for so long. It's hard to imagine that continuing to watch and calculate would be very useful. Thus, it could be time for JetBlue to begin the process of entering the transatlantic market by announcing an A321LR order at its investor meeting this week.