Ad Age (which I generally respect, though, like much of the non-airline-industry-media, they tend to blow airline stories out of proportion), asks whether JetBlue has become just another airline. (The short answer, according to them, is “kinda.”) The jumping off point for the story, of course, is the recent flight attendant nonsense, but it’s a legitimate question to ask with the airline celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Although JetBlue got much of its early credit for live television, its early success really rested on its ability to hire consistently great frontline talent. The airline famous grew its ranks from outside the airline world, focusing instead on people they felt could consistently provide a great customer experience. That’s how they differentiated themselves (let’s not fool ourselves, either, they also competed on price, driving down fares on the transcon market, and fighting a brutal battle with American on many of those routes). As they grew, though, they faced the same growing pains felt by every business as it tries to scale: how to you continue to consistently hire (and train) people in the same manner as a company with 100 planes as you did when you had 10. Answer: nobody knows yet.
When your key differentiator is people, there are legitimate questions as to whether that’s a scalable model. Sure, they offered Live television, but soon others did, too (although the author of the AdAge article says he can’t understand why every airline does not have Live television at every seat, the answer is that in a commodity business, there is no reason to add cost when there is no revenue tied to it. Free television brings is an ROI negative decision at this point).
An agency guy in the article says, ‘JetBlue was different once, but not anymore,” but that’s not really true. They certainly do provide a better experience, if only because of legroom and television and some nebulous style points, but Virgin America has decided to compete on the same thing (minus the legroom). And they have quickly learned that they gain little-to-no revenue bump by offering all the in-seat bells and whistles.
Though JetBlue is hardly the phenomenon it once was, it has become something more sustainable: a very well-run airline. Sure, in-flight TV and snacks are the fun parts to chat about, but JetBlue succeeds today because of smart route planning, a cost structure that (for now) allows them to turn a profit at lower fares than competitors, and a brave & intelligent choice to purchase the Embraers for thinner/shorter routes. It’s not that sexy, but if that were easy to pull off, everyone would’ve done it.