NEW YORK -- The Big Apple is a financial, social and cultural hub, the headquarters city for many companies but just one airline: jetBlue Airways.
The plucky discount carrier, which started flying from its John F. Kennedy International Airport hub in 2000, added Anchorage, Alaska, to its cluster of destinations almost three years ago with seasonal service to Long Beach, Calif.
This summer, the carrier is adding a daily Anchorage-Seattle flight in the mix, which is disrupting the tidy, upscale applecart of air fares heretofore dominated by Alaska Airlines.
John Checketts is the director of route planning for jetBlue and plays a key role in determining where the airline will allocate its planes and crews. He says "Alaska has been top-of-mind for the last 12 months."
We stopped by the airline's Brooklyn headquarters to ask him why:
Q: Why did you decide to add the Anchorage-Seattle route this summer?
JC: Any time we see a market where the fares are too high, we consider it.
Q: This year will mark the third year of seasonal service between Long Beach and Anchorage, and the first year for service between Seattle and Anchorage (May 16-Sept. 3, 2013). Do you have plans to offer year-round service to Alaskans?
JC: I'd like to find a way to offer year-round service for Alaska. Sometimes, though, we have to dip our toe in the water and see how it works out.
For example, our first market from New York in 2000 was to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It's a destination market -- and we will take all the travelers we can from our New York destinations south to Florida.
But as we've added service to the market, Ft. Lauderdale also has turned into an origination market. In other words, we're tapping into the local pool of travelers. Now we have flights to serve those travelers -- to Columbia, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and soon, San Jose, Costa Rica.
That market development takes time. We're happy with how our Long Beach flights have performed from Anchorage so far. But strategically, at this point, our primary objective is to carry our customers to Anchorage. It's still a "destination" market.
Q: As soon as you announced your flights to Long Beach and Seattle, Alaska Airlines matched your fares. Is jetBlue ready to take them on between Anchorage and Seattle?
JC: Alaska Airlines is a great airline -- and right now it's benefiting from a high market share in Anchorage. I certainly don't think Alaska Airlines is "gouging passengers," but the fares still are too high.
Alaska Airlines would like nothing more than for jetBlue to leave the market. And if jetBlue leaves, you'll see the air fares go right back up to the previous levels.
So we have to have competitive air service. And we (the airlines) all have to play nice in the sandbox.
Q: I've gotten many emails from readers in Juneau and Fairbanks talking about the high fares they're paying. Do you have any plans to offer service to other Alaska cities?
JC: We've looked at Fairbanks. In fact, we have a whole room of nerds that analyze traveler data (I'm one of them). But right now, there's not much data to support an initiative to offer 150 seats a day from Fairbanks to Seattle.
And right now, we want to see how big we can make the Anchorage-Seattle route. For example, I think the Anchorage-Seattle flights will enhance our Anchorage-Long Beach service.
Q: JetBlue has its own loyalty program, called True Blue. How does it stack up against Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan?
JC: I don't know if True Blue can penetrate the Anchorage market. Any program, including True Blue, is designed to build loyalty to its brand at the expense of all others. So unless a traveler is flying exclusively Anchorage-Seattle or to other jetBlue destinations, I'm not sure it makes sense.
But True Blue certainly can get people to Anchorage from around our extensive network. And we're committed to that effort.
Q: Your Airbus 320s don't offer a first class cabin like Alaska Airlines. But you do offer more legroom in some seats, right?
JC: We offer "Even More Space" in seven rows on our Airbus 320s (the first five rows and two exit rows), which features a 38-inch seat pitch. The rest of the plane has 34-inch seat pitch, which still is more room than most other airlines. When you upgrade to the "Even More Space" seats, you also have access to expedited security in select cities and early boarding.
Q: Do you offer in-flight internet access like Alaska Airlines?
JC: No, but we do have an in-flight entertainment system at every seat. However, we're installing in-flight WiFi this year. It takes about a month to install the WiFi on each plane. It's a satellite-based system, using a high-speed "K-band" spectrum, much faster than the terrestrial "Gogo" system on Alaska Airlines. And for a limited time, we will offer it for free to all customers.
Q: Your website says that jetBlue is dedicated to bringing humanity back to air travel. That's a bold claim, isn't it?
JC: I think an important element is travelers' own expectations. And we find that once people try jetBlue, they find it's better than they expected. So we want Alaskans to try jetBlue. And fly jetBlue. And let's see how big we can make this. Perhaps two flights to Seattle each day, or maybe a flight to Las Vegas. That's my hope.