JetBlue Airways bucked convention when it began unveiling dozens of new routes early on in the coronavirus pandemic. The additions were widely seen as a play to fly where the few travelers out there were going but also some strategic moves, like expanding in competitors’ hubs, like Dallas/Fort Worth and Detroit.
A year on, the widely accepted view that strategic flying is a euphemism for losing money is ringing true for the New York-based carrier. JetBlue has cut 23 of the 90 new routes it unveiled between July and December 2020, an Airline Weekly analysis of Cirium schedule data shows. Newark was a winner, keeping the majority of its respective additions, while Philadelphia and Raleigh-Durham saw the brunt of the cuts with nine of their combined 13 new routes gone. Los Angeles also retained many of its pandemic routes though many replaced service from nearby Long Beach when JetBlue left the airport in October.
JetBlue spokesperson Philip Stewart said the latest changes come as bookings return to “expected patterns” and schedules are shifting to “support our long-term network strategy.” He added that many of the pandemic routes helped the airline “generate cash for operations during a very difficult time.”
“A lot of this stuff wasn’t going to stick around,” Ailevon Pacific Aviation Managing Director Brad DiFiore said when asked of the cuts. “It was a completely different environment when they added it.”
When JetBlue unveiled the first round of 30-plus routes last June, traveler numbers were less than a quarter of what they were in 2019, according to Transportation Security Administration screening data. And by December they had only risen to 34 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Fast forward to today and leisure travelers are back in force, with screenings surpassing 2 million a day on June 11 for the first time since March 2020.
That means it is back to something near normal for JetBlue. Flights are returning to routes flown prior to the pandemic that were either reduced or suspended during the worst of the crisis. Many of the aircraft used to fly new markets are now needed for many of their prior missions, though some business-focused routes — like Boston-Baltimore — remain suspended pending the return of corporate roadwarriors. JetBlue had 270 aircraft at the end of March compared to 259 at the end of 2019.
In addition to resuming flights, JetBlue needs aircraft for its new Northeast Alliance with American Airlines. The carrier has unveiled 32 new routes under the controversial pact to date. Those include the further expansion of its new Newark base with 10 additions from July 1, as well as significant expansions at Boston, and New York JFK and LaGuardia airports through into 2022.
JetBlue also will make its long-awaited debut to London in August. Flights between New York JFK and Heathrow start on August 11, and between JFK and Gatwick on September 29. Planned Boston-Heathrow flights are due to begin in 2022.
JetBlue’s capacity will be flat in July compared to 2019 even with the latest round of route cuts, Cirium schedules show. And by October, it is forecast to increase 3 percent year-over-two-years primarily driven by the Northeast Alliance additions.
The fact that JetBlue is keeping as many as three-quarters of its pandemic routes is notable. DiFiore described that as a “pretty reasonable success rate” for any airline network expansion.
None of this makes the airline’s cuts any easier for the markets involved. Kenneth Strickland, director of air service development at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, said they are “always disappointed” when an airline ends a flight to the airport. But he also found a silver lining in the changes: One of the new routes JetBlue will keep is Raleigh-Los Angeles, a market the airport had long sought to add competition on.
“If someone gives you $1,000 and then takes $500 away, you really have to be happy that you still have $500,” said Stickland.