Charging by the Inch at JetBlue

April 7, 2008

As of April 1st, JetBlue has begun charging an additional fee for seats with 4 more inches of legroom.  For an airline that has always had a single class cabin, has prided itself on the use of the pronoun “we” and has leveraged its founder’s propensity to fly amongst customers, this is a bad idea.

The beauty of JetBlue is the simplicity and the transparency. Prior to JetBlue, airlines seemed loathe to admit that you are only on a plane because you have to be. JetBlue took a more human approach: none of us really wants to be here, but we’re all in this together, so we’ll treat you like an adult and let’s make the best of it. Compared to the major airlines, this has all been a breath of much-needed fresh air to the industry. One-way pricing, online seat selection, a friendly approach, a choice of snacks, a simple and straightforward rewards program – and, of course, on-air TV: JetBlue has struck a chord and its fans are legion.

$10 for an extra 4” of legroom (or more $$ for longer flights) seems to me to be completely at odds with the JetBlue ideology.  I have nothing against tiered pricing, as companies are certainly free to extract maximum value from the market.  But tiering just does not fit for every brand – and JetBlue is a tier-free brand. And when it is difficult to distinguish between the two versions of the product, the risk of alienating and angering customers may well outweigh any potential benefits. The “better” JetBlue seats just look like those prize seats (like exit rows or bulk heads) that people used to aspire to with early check-in or a stroke of luck. To reduce that to a $10 bounty is just, well, crass.

jetBlue Legroom

A few years ago United Airlines introduced Economy Plus. On United, the Plus seats are visibly marked on the plane – and I have seen flight attendants shoo people away from the premium seats (or even offer them for a price) in mid-flight. All this while the rest of coach sat shoulder-to-shoulder around an island of virtually empty Plus seats in the middle of the cabin. Thus far at JetBlue it seems that all bets are off when the doors close, as I was lucky enough to steal that extra 4 inches of legroom on a recent flight as we pulled from the gate. So, if the flight attendants enforce the tiers in mid-flight, they look like Scrooges; if they don’t the value of the seats becomes spurious. JetBlue has put its most powerful brand ambassadors in a no-win situation.

Obviously the airline industry is hurting, as the spate of bankruptcies continues unabated. A la carte offerings, like extra legroom or special luggage needs or food and entertainment are ripe for squeezing a few more dollars from captive customers.  But for price sensitive customers, these changes may impact just once – before sparking a change in their own behavior. They’ll adjust to less legroom; they’ll forgo the extra bag; they’ll bring their own food and entertainment. And they will lump your beloved brand in with all the rest of ‘em.

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Perhaps the market will prove me wrong. Perhaps customers will gladly pay a modest step-up charge for a bit of extra space, and JetBlue can delight Wall Street by boosting per flight margins by a fraction of a percent. But this is a slippery slope, for if it does succeed JetBlue may find itself evolving to a place where every aspect of the JetBlue experience has a price tag.

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