Last week, industrial heavyweight General Electric (NYSE:GE) announced that it will move its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to Boston over the next few years. GE will become by far the largest corporation headquartered in Massachusetts.
Attracting such a high-profile corporate relocation was a big coup for Massachusetts and Boston. It could also be the impetus for further expansion by JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU), the top airline in Boston.
JetBlue means business in Boston
Boston is a very unusual city in JetBlue's route network. In most of its focus cities, JetBlue primarily serves the leisure and "visiting friends and relatives" markets. For example, it is the largest airline in the Caribbean and also has a very large presence in Florida.
By contrast, JetBlue is the largest airline in Boston, with roughly 30% market share. Its biggest competitors are legacy carriers like Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), but they each fly primarily from Boston to their own hubs, along with a handful of point-to-point routes. This has allowed JetBlue to make significant inroads in Boston's business travel market.
JetBlue currently serves dozens of cities nonstop from Boston with an average of 118 daily departures during the winter and up to 140 daily departures during the summer. It still carries plenty of leisure traffic in Boston, but JetBlue also operates numerous routes that have a large component of business travel.
JetBlue continues improving its relevance to business travelers in Boston by adding flights to more of the places they need to go. In early 2014, JetBlue began flying from Boston to Detroit. A year later, it added Cleveland to its route map. Most recently, it announced plans to return to Nashville in May. JetBlue will also become the only airline offering flat-bed seats on Boston-San Francisco and Boston-Los Angeles flights later this year.
General Electric could boost business travel
General Electric is expected to have about 800 employees in its new Boston office by 2018. Of that number, 200 will be corporate staff.
Since GE has subsidiaries headquartered in many other metro areas -- including London, Chicago, Cincinnati, upstate New York, and Atlanta -- there will be plenty of travel in and out of Boston by GE executives. (Some of that may be on corporate jets, though.)
Furthermore, GE executives aspire to have "a constant flow of industry partners, customers and innovators" coming through the new headquarters, according to The New York Times. That would increase the impact of GE's relocation on Boston business travel.
JetBlue's big weakness
In competing for corporate travel share with airline heavyweights like Delta, one of JetBlue's biggest disadvantages is its incomplete route network. There are still a significant number of major U.S. markets where JetBlue has no flights at all, including Atlanta, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.
JetBlue could have trouble competing for GE's internal corporate travel business when it doesn't serve Cincinnati and Atlanta (cities with major GE operations).
By contrast, Delta may not have nonstop flights from Boston to every major U.S. city, but it can provide one-stop connections to anywhere in the country -- plus many international destinations -- through its hubs. Atlanta and Cincinnati specifically are both Delta hubs. As a result, Delta has multiple daily flights from Boston to each city.
Time to expand?
GE's relocation to Boston could thus spur further expansion of JetBlue's route network. Obviously, JetBlue can't justify adding routes just for the purpose of chasing GE's business. However, there are plenty of other travelers who need to fly from Boston to cities like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and other markets that JetBlue doesn't serve today.
JetBlue is already the fifth-largest airline in the U.S. While it's still a fraction of the size of Delta and the other legacy carriers, its strength in Boston should allow JetBlue to hold its own there, even on flights to competitors' hub markets. If it's serious about conquering the business travel market, it will need to fill in the remaining gaps in its route network.