Last June, JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) began a new chapter of its history with the introduction of its Mint premium service. Instead of using its standard all-coach configuration, JetBlue added a 16-seat premium cabin with full flat-bed seats for some of its new A321s. (Four of the seats even come as private mini-suites!)
JetBlue opted to make this change in order to boost its profitability on the ultra-competitive New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes. Less than a year in, it's pretty clear that this move is paying off even more handsomely than originally expected.
Mint ramps up
The routes from New York's JFK Airport to Los Angeles and San Francisco are highly contested -- JetBlue competes with all three legacy carriers as well as Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA). Until last June, JetBlue had been the only one not offering a swanky premium section on these flights. Not surprisingly, this took it out of the running for attracting the most lucrative travelers.
JetBlue created Mint in order to narrow the revenue gap with its rivals. The idea was to offer a lie-flat seat at a much lower price than the prevailing fares in order to court the small/medium business and upscale leisure markets: i.e., people who were priced out of the premium cabin on other airlines.
JetBlue has been phasing in Mint flights since last June as the specially configured Airbus A321 planes have arrived. It is finally reaching a full schedule of eight daily round-trips to Los Angeles and five daily round-trips to San Francisco this spring.
Strong demand across the board
Ever since JetBlue launched its Mint service, company executives have noted that they were pleasantly surprised by the level of demand for its premium seats. As expected, Mint has been popular with small/medium businesses and well-to-do leisure travelers.
More surprisingly, Mint has also generated strong interest among large corporations. JetBlue had assumed that its rivals -- mainly the legacy carriers, but also Virgin America to some extent -- had that business locked up. Instead, JetBlue's entry into the market has disrupted the status quo.
Virgin America CEO David Cush noted in February that JetBlue's entry into the market had driven average premium fares down by 30%-40% on the Mint routes. This indicates competitors have had to at least meet JetBlue halfway in terms of pricing in order to prevent customers from bolting.
In the first few months of Mint's existence, JetBlue was offering a starting non-refundable fare of $599 one-way. There were two higher fare "buckets": $799 and $999. Depending on the level of demand for a particular flight, JetBlue's revenue management system would determine how many seats to sell at each price point in order to maximize revenue.
Because of the strength of demand, JetBlue's Mint cabin was frequently sold out last summer. As a result, in the fall, the company revised its Mint pricing tiers. In October, JetBlue's then-president -- and current CEO -- Robin Hayes explained that JetBlue had moved the refundable fare up to $1,199 and then to $1,209. Meanwhile, it had made the $999 price point a third non-refundable fare.
More recently, JetBlue has apparently determined that the market can support even higher fares. There's still an introductory fare of $599, but there seem to be fewer of these tickets available, especially on busy travel days.
Furthermore, on the San Francisco route, the refundable fare has moved up to $1,249, while the intermediate non-refundable fares have risen to $809 and $1,049. Fares are even higher for New York-Los Angeles flights. The refundable fare there is now set at $1,299, with the intermediate non-refundable fares at $899 and $1,149.
A big profit tailwind
JetBlue has been posting by far the best unit revenue growth in the industry recently. It would be naive to attribute this performance to a single factor, but the strong reception of its Mint premium offering is clearly having a big impact. JetBlue is regularly pulling in one-way fares of more than $800 -- and, increasingly, more than $1,000 -- on routes where just two years ago, its average one-way fares were less than $250.
Late last year, JetBlue told investors that for the month of September, its profit margin on the Mint route to Los Angeles had risen by 17 percentage points year over year. Given that it has raised prices several times since then, its Mint routes are surely even more profitable now.
For competitors like Virgin America, this is mixed news. In the short run, it's better if JetBlue is commanding higher prices, because it limits the need for other airlines to discount their fares to match JetBlue. But in the long run, JetBlue's massive success on the New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes could encourage it to add flights, putting even more pressure on the competition.