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JetBlue converts to 13 A321LRs, commits to London service

JetBlue Airways will convert 13 aircraft in its Airbus A321neo orderbook to the A321LR, and launch its first transatlantic flights to London in 2021.

The New York-based carrier, which announced the plans to employees at an event today, will configure its A321LRs with a larger Mint premium cabin than what it currently offers on the Mint A321s that operate on US transcontinental routes and some Caribbean flights.

JetBlue will offer service to London from both New York John F Kennedy and Boston in 2021. It is in the midst of negotiations with "multiple" airport operators in London, and has not firmed flight frequencies. It will shortly begin the process to achieve extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS) certification with the US Federal Aviation Administration, a process that could take 12 to 18 months.

While JetBlue has pondered the launch of transatlantic service for years with the airline calling London its largest unserved market from the US northeast, the airline's chief commercial officer Marty St George says the performance of the Mint premium cabin prompted the carrier to pull the trigger.

"It's really been driven a lot by our success with Mint," St George tells FlightGlobal of the decision to launch transatlantic flights. JetBlue, which launched Mint in 2014, has continuously touted the product's success on its US transcontinental routes, citing Mint's ability to push premium fares down and grow margins.

JetBlue now hopes to replicate that success on transatlantic service. While economy class fares on transatlantic routes are "pretty low most of the year", St George sees an opportunity to offer a differentiated product for premium travellers in the market that will start at a lower price point.

"This is made and broken on premium service," he says. "And with the incredible success we've had with Mint, we are very confident we can penetrate our small share of that premium market when the time comes."

JetBlue currently configures its Mint A321s with 16 premium seats up front, with each reclining into a lie-flat seat. Four of the 16 seats are "mini suites" with doors that close. St George declines to specify how many more Mint seats the airline will have on its A321LRs, but says the Airbus Cabin Flex version of the A321 fuselage gives JetBlue more flexibility in offering a larger premium cabin.

The variation offers up to four over-wing exit doors, and eliminates a pair of doors that were immediately ahead of the wing on previous A321s. Calling the concept an "incredible advantage", St George says: "When you lose that second door right in front of the wing, you are able to have flexibility for [the] cabin size."

Besides offering more Mint seats, the airline is developing a "reimagined" version of Mint for transatlantic service, but St George declines to divulge more details. The premium product currently includes dining, in-flight entertainment and amenity kits, among other perks.

St George declines to comment on how much lower transatlantic Mint fares could be compared to competitors, but points to the airline's history of offering lower premium fares in the US transcontinental market as a guide: "When we started flying Boston to San Francisco, premium fares were $2,400 and we basically cut those fares in half."

Nonstop roundtrip business class flights between New York JFK and London, for travel in a month's time, range between $2,800 and $8,700, according to a search on Google Flights. The flight duration from the US northeast to London is just about an hour longer than the flight between Boston and San Francisco, points out St George.

"Transatlantic is more expensive for other reasons but it's not three or four times as expensive," he says.

JetBlue's entrance into the transatlantic market will make it the fifth player offering nonstop service to London from Boston, and the seventh airline to fly nonstop from New York City.

British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic operate to London Heathrow from Boston, Cirium schedules data show. Norwegian Air UK operates from Boston to London Gatwick. Delta announced earlier this month it will return to Gatwick in 2020 with service from Boston and New York John F Kennedy operated in partnership with Virgin Atlantic.

In the New York-London market, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic operate to London Heathrow from New York JFK. British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic fly from Newark to London Heathrow. British Airways also operates from New York JFK to both London City and London Gatwick. Norwegian Air UK offers nonstop service from New York JFK to London Gatwick as well.

JetBlue first added the option of converting some A321neo orders to the A321LR in July 2016, when it announced an order for 30 additional A321s split evenly between the A321neo and A321ceo. The airline currently holds orders for 85 A321neos, with Cirium's Fleets Analyzer showing it will take delivery of its first in May. The decision to convert will leave the airline with orders for 13 A321LRs and 72 A321neos.

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