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Home Travel JetBlue’s Long-Desired West Coast Focus City Dream Dies in June – Cranky Flier

JetBlue’s Long-Desired West Coast Focus City Dream Dies in June – Cranky Flier

by Staff

The way JetBlue tells it, Los Angeles remains an important focus city and a crew base, but this week’s big cuts in LA starting for travel starting June 13 suggest otherwise. After nearly 23 years, JetBlue is finally giving up on making something on the West Coast a key focus city. Its last attempt, LAX, will now revert to being a spoke on steroids, exactly what it should be.

This week’s changes correspond with a slew of other shifts, including exiting Bogotá, Lima, and Quito along with Kansas City. The airline will also stop pretending that Newburgh/Stewart is just suspended, finally calling it dead and making it that much harder for Americans to visit the Faroe Islands. There is more underlying shifting going on here, but until I get a chance to see the data in Cirium this weekend, it’s hard to understand the full ramifications. But in the LA Basin, there’s no need to wait.

JetBlue first came to the LA area in 2000 when it began flying from New York to Ontario. Then-CEO David Neeleman wanted to build a true focus city in the region, but Ontario wasn’t willing or able to make a deal. Instead, David headed over to Long Beach where he scooped up all the previously-unwanted slots and opened the station in 2001, just before 9/11.

Since 2001, JetBlue has tried so many different ways to make things work in the LA area. None of them — save flying to the airline’s east coast strongholds — have been successful. Charts will help tell the story. Let’s start by looking at departures by destination region.

LA Basin Departing Seats by Destination Region

Data via Cirium

The initial focus was on flying back to JetBlue’s Northeast home, and it did well in the early days. In 2002 the airline opened up intra-West flying, making it a true effort at a focus city. Over the years, the airline waffled between going with higher frequency or into more destinations. In 2017, Long Beach made more slots available, so JetBlue boosted frequencies to try to capture the market. Around that same time, JetBlue began to grow its Florida presence from LAX. This wasn’t a bad idea, but nothing at Long Beach was working.

Prior to the pandemic, JetBlue had hoped to get a customs facility in Long Beach so it could fly to Latin America, but stubborn locals who didn’t understand what was truly at stake blocked the plan from even being considered. JetBlue gave back some slots before the pandemic, and the once the pandemic hit, it just walked away.

If we flip this chart around and look at departing seats by departure airport in the LA Basin, you’ll see that story very clearly.

LA Basin Departing Seats by Airport

Data via Cirium

It was 2009 when JetBlue started at LAX. It had been forced to go there when Virgin America started taking business away from Long Beach with its own LAX service. JetBlue rolled out Mint soon after and created a hit. The service slowly grew into multiple cities along the East Coast. But when the pandemic hit, a switch flipped.

JetBlue’s last flight from Long Beach was in October 2020, and it moved the entire operation to LAX. Its plan was to keep some short-haul flying from the Long Beach operation and add the international routes it never had the chance to fly from Long Beach. That combined with the airline’s robust Northeast operation that already existed was supplemented by some attempts at smaller cities on the other side of the country, like Charleston and Richmond. The idea at the time was to be near 70 flights a day within 5 years.

JetBlue never got to almost half the 70 daily flights, and its intra-West flying was limited to one or maybe 2 flights per day in markets with far greater frequency on many other airlines. This wasn’t working. Meanwhile, both Burbank and Ontario were simply spokes connecting to JFK after a few minor attempts at trying other cities. Long Beach was a distant memory.

The entire LA Basin focus city strategy was predicated on buying Spirit and growing its presence… to still be a distant sixth place. I have no idea where the airline thought it could actually add more flying profitably. With the Spirit merger dead, JetBlue is doing what it should have done long ago. It will exit the entire intra-West network with rare exception.

It was already a shell of its former self with few flights in the remaining markets, including Seattle which hadn’t seen service since last year. But here’s how this week’s changes look on a map:

JetBlue LAX Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Blue remains, red is exited

Outside of flying to the Northeast and Florida, the only routes that remain are a single daily flight to Los Cabos and another to Salt Lake City. (Yes, the seasonal, weekly flight to Nassau isn’t technically in Florida either, but it’s close… also, that’s really about utilizing Mint airplanes on the weekend when they don’t have much else to do.)

Looking at a random Monday in July, the bread-and-butter remains the East Coast flying using the Mint fleet. There are 10x to JFK, 5x to Boston, and 3x each to Fort Lauderdale and Newark. These flights all make sense within the context of JetBlue’s network.

The rest of the remaining LA flying is on the A320. One flight comes in at night from Buffalo and turns back around as a redeye. JetBlue has had this flight in the market for ages, and I just assume it’s some kind of payback to New York’s political delegation for supporting JetBlue getting started all those years ago. But it is utilization flying anyway, so it doesn’t need much revenue to be ok.

There are also two other A320 markets with the same basic flight times, but the airplanes appear to switch. An A320 comes in from Hartford in the evening and then turns back to Orlando on a redeye. Then another A320 comes in from Orlando in the evening and overnights. The next day it does a morning roundtrip to Cabo and then an afternoon roundtrip to Salt Lake City before flying to Hartford on the redeye.

And that is now the entire operation. The natural thought is that this would be the end of the crew base that opened so long ago, but that’s not happening, at least not yet. JetBlue tells me, “Base staffing is not expected to change for Flight Ops or Inflight.  LAX remains one of our six focus cities with a primary focus on transcontinental routes.”

Ok, and maybe that makes sense from a crew scheduling perspective. I don’t know for sure. But I’d say growth opportunities are going to be pretty slim unless they’re multi-day trips that just stay on the East Coast for awhile before heading back. Maybe there’s another shoe to drop here, or maybe not.

This is exactly the kind of change that I’d hoped we’d see under new leadership. JetBlue should not have been wasting its resources on this LA operation when it never had any hope of being relevant. Now it can put those airplanes somewhere else where there’s far more value to the airline.

This week’s episode of The Air Show podcast is a more in-depth look at some of JetBlue’s strategic issues. It goes live sometime today, March 21, so make sure you’re subscribed using your favorite podcast app. If you’re not subscribed… well get on it…

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