When JetBlue launched in 2000, founder David Neeleman wanted to “bring humanity back to air travel.” He created a single-cabin experience that was designed to be low-cost but full of special touches like unlimited snacks, more legroom, and TVs in every seat. Part of its appeal was that every passenger was getting the same quality of service. Everyone was equal on JetBlue.
But things are changing. These days, if you’re going on a cross-country trip on JetBlue, chances are you’ll have to pass through a first-class cabin before getting to your seat in the back. You may observe with envy as 16 lucky passengers sip on expensive Napa Valley wines while getting situated in seats that convert into fully reclining beds. Later, as you chomp on the trail mix you bought at the airport, the scent of freshly made amuse-bouches and perfectly grilled burgers from trendy New York restaurants might waft by.
JetBlue quietly began its experiment with first class, which it is calling Mint, in the summer of 2014 on flights from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, at a starting price of $599 one-way. Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s VP of marketing, explains that the company was losing business to competing airlines with first- and business-class alternatives, particularly on longer routes. “On flights over five or six hours, customers would book with other airlines, even though they were extremely loyal to us on shorter routes,” he explains. “We had to grapple with this question: Do we stay all Core [JetBlue’s term for economy class] or do we try to win back those customers by offering a premium experience?”
Their answer was to create Mint. Perry says the company is targeting passengers who have some control over their travel plans. “If you’re with a large corporation or a bank, you are probably part of a corporate travel program, so you don’t have much choice over who you fly with,” Perry explains. On the other hand, entrepreneurs and members of the startup community have much more autonomy with their booking, so in some ways, JetBlue has designed the Mint experience with people like this in mind.
The in-air perks reflect some of that independent ethos. Rather than working with large, established caterers, JetBlue has worked with chefs at trendy restaurants. The menus are curated by Brad Farmerie, the executive chef of Saxon + Parole in New York. Desserts come from the popular Blue Marble Ice Cream shop in Brooklyn and Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery in Chelsea. Toiletry boxes are provided by Birchbox.
This week, the airline is rolling out its inaugural flight between Boston and San Francisco, and will also be offering a seasonal service from Boston to Barbados. Perry explains that the airline was targeting the large tech startup community as well as academics who travel out to the Bay Area regularly. But this is just a sign of things to come. JetBlue is currently thinking through how it can bring Mint to all of its longer routes.
But how do regular customers feel now that JetBlue has cattle class just like every other airline? Perry says that JetBlue has been working hard to improve the quality of experience for core customers on aircrafts that include Mint: They’ve installed new leather seats in the back, with nicer TVs. And he claims that there hasn’t been any negative feedback from loyal, regular-paying JetBlue customers. “There’s been absolutely no backlash,” he says.