ANALYSIS: JetBlue's appetite for larger A321s tied to Florida growth

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JetBlue's decision to restructure its new aircraft deliveries in favour of larger Airbus jets is inextricably linked to the airline's ongoing strategy to grow out of South Florida.

The New York-based carrier announced today an order for 15 Airbus current generation A321s and 20 A321neos, and will convert 18 existing A320 delivery positions to the larger A321. Of the 18, eight current generation A320s will be switched to current generation A321s. The other 10 positions, for the A320neo, will be converted to A321neos.

The airline will defer deliveries of 24 Embraer 190s to 2020-2022, from 2014-2018 originally. JetBlue's chief financial officer Mark Powers says during the airline's earnings call today that it will optimise its E190 fleet at 60 aircraft in the near term.

JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger says that while the E190 is critical to the airline's success in its focus cities of Boston and San Juan, he believes the airline can address this need with 60 E190s.

A JetBlue spokesperson tells Flightglobal that the airline's decision to defer the E-190 deliveries was not affected by the launch this year of the re-engined E-Jet, referred to as the E2. "The E2 was not a factor in our decision. It's a happy coincidence that the timing lines up but our decision was solely driven by network needs," says the spokesperson. However, she says that the timing might allow for discussions later on possibly converting the E-190 orders to the re-engined E2. The E-190-E2 will enter service in 2018.

JetBlue's updated fleet plan

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Source: JetBlue Airways

* JetBlue converted 8 A320ceo positions to A321ceo positions including 7 in 2017 and 1 in 2018
** JetBlue converted 10 A320neo positions to A321neo positions including 5 in 2018 and 5 in 2019

Having the bigger A321s will help the airline serve high density markets and accelerate its growth out of Fort Lauderdale, which the airline has been steadily growing out of. JetBlue has said it wants to grow the number of daily flights out of the airport to 100 in 2017 from a peak of about 60 or so.

The airline announced today two new non-stop destinations from Fort Lauderdale - Montego Bay and Punta Cana - from 1 May 2014. JetBlue will also begin flights from Fort Lauderdale to Port of Spain that day.

JetBlue has kept busy this year launching flights from the Florida airport to several international destinations and will begin flights to Lima on 21 November and Port-au-Prince on 5 December.

Fort Lauderdale has been identified by JetBlue as one of the high-density destinations that will receive A321 flights. The carrier has received its first A321 and will take an additional A321s before the year ends.

Barger says today that the airline is committed to grow "briskly" at Fort Lauderdale, noting the ongoing improvements at the airport. The airport's terminal four, which JetBlue's international flights arrive at, is being expanded. By 2017, the 10 gates there will be replaced with 14 new gates, the airport has said. The airport is also rebuilding one of its two runways, formerly used only for general aviation, for commercial operations in 2014.

"We can't be more excited," says Barger of the ongoing improvements to Fort Lauderdale, adding that cost per enplanement at the airport is much lower than nearby Miami International airport. "It's a superior experience, not even close," he says.

The growth out of Fort Lauderdale will play a significant role in JetBlue's capacity growth plan in 2014. While the airline's executive decline today to specify capacity growth for 2014, Barger says it will be in the positive mid-single digit range.

Aside from feeding its Florida ambitions, the A321s will provide JetBlue a 10% to 15% savings in cost per available seat mile over the A320 as a result of better fuel efficiency, says Powers in today's call. The larger A321s will also allow the carrier to better utilise its lucrative landing slots at its home base of New York John F. Kennedy International airport, he adds.