JetBlue likely to convert E-190s to E2: CEO

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JetBlue Airways will likely convert its existing Embraer 190 orders to the re-engined E-Jet E2, after it deferred deliveries of 24 E-190s to beyond 2020.

"The deferral is not linked [to the E2] but coincidentally the timing is very good for the geared turbofan version of the E2," JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger tells Flightglobal today.

JetBlue will take delivery of its 60th E-190 in this quarter and aims to optimise its E-190 fleet at 60 aircraft. The 24 E-190s that were deferred to 2020-2022 were initially planned for delivery in 2014-2018.

"Rightsizing at 60 aircraft is perfect," says Barger. "It allows us to continue to build Boston with its shorter range mission flights, and allows us to connect to the Caribbean through San Juan."

Asked if JetBlue has started talks with Embraer on converting the deferred E-190s to the E2, Barger says: "Oh no doubt. Embraer would love to have JetBlue as an E2 customer. We have to be looking further out."

Along with JetBlue's decision to defer the E-190s, it also announced on 29 October that it would order 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.

JetBlue has said the bigger A321s will help the carrier trim unit costs and ramp up its flights out of Fort Lauderdale, a key city in its growth plan the next few years. "What is more important right now is bigger airplanes," says Barger.

The carrier had also previously ordered 110 shipsets of sharklets for its in-service A320s, which will help reduce fuel burn. JetBlue signed a letter of intent with Airbus for the order in February 2013, and Barger says he is "off the charts happy" with this week's announcement from Airbus that it would revive a programme to retrofit the sharklets onto older A320s.

Airbus earlier this year suspended work on the retrofit for older A320s, saying that the business case was not clear enough. Barger previously said it had been frustrating to get the airframer to commit to the programme for its older A320s. "The retrofit winglet has really been frustrating," he told Flightglobal in September 2012.

JetBlue will close 2013 with 130 A320s, but only 110 will be retrofitted with the sharklets. The retrofits commence in 2015, and Barger expects them to be completed in early 2017. He explains that it will not be financially viable to retrofit the remaining 20 A320s with the sharklets as they are much older aircraft.

The sharklet retrofit will involve reinforcement of the A320 wings, which is required before the the sharklet wing-tips can be attached. Barger says the "bulk" of the 110 A320s that will be retrofitted with the A320s will have go through work to have their wings reinforced.

New A320s are now delivered with reinforced wings, and JetBlue received its first A320 with the sharklets already installed earlier this year. JetBlue will have six A320s with the sharklets by the end of 2013, says Barger.

He declines to specify how much JetBlue is investing the sharklet retrofit programme, but believes that the capital costs will pay off in about three years or less. "We are very pleased with the terms with Airbus," he says, pointing out that the airline is the launch customer of the retrofit programme. Feedback from the airline's pilots have indicated the benefits of the sharklets, with some observing that they burn 500kg (1,100lb) less fuel on a transcontinental flight, says Barger.

Despite plans to grow its network and fleet in the coming years, Barger makes it clear that the airline does not plan to look beyond its current aircraft types for now. Asked at a aviation safety summit in Washington DC today why JetBlue is not operating Boeing aircraft, Barger attributes the US airframer's failure to win JetBlue's business to "arrogance".

"This airline was going to be a Boeing airline, I kid you not," he tells the audience at the summit, saying that pricing was not a factor. "The deal was literally being closed."

The A320 family also has an advantage in offering two engine choices over the 737's sole engine offer, which allowed for costs to be more competitive, says Barger. "When you can compete on powerplants, it's amazing what it does."