Skift Take

JetBlue's looming change in its bag-fee policy likely will create a larger controversy than when Southwest revamped its loyalty program a few years ago. JetBlue undoubtedly has run the numbers and figures it will come out ahead. It would be prudent to get the war room and phone banks ready, though.

JetBlue’s brand reputation took a hit over the recent holiday travel period among likely travelers, and it hasn’t even implemented its new bag-fee policy yet.

In a YouGov BrandIndex survey of 4,000 likely flyers on January 4, 2015, JetBlue’s satisfaction score fell 11.3 points to 52.5 out of a possible 100 compared with an October 7, 2014 survey. Among U.S. domestic airlines, JetBlue’s satisfaction score was the only one to notch a “significant” drop, according to a spokesperson for YouGov. (Virgin America’s score fell 12.6 points, but the number of respondents opining about Virgin America wasn’t statistically significant.)

What was behind JetBlue’s fall, which put it in fourth place in the satisfaction ranking among U.S. domestic carriers while it was third three month earlier?

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“December marked two major news stories for the airline. Firstly, in early December, JetBlue announced that it would eliminate its ‘first bag checked free’ policy as part of an overhaul of its pricing system as well as adding 15 more seats into its present Airbus A320 crafts,” the YouGov spokesperson says. “Later in the month, JetBlue flew 700 police officers for free to New York City for slain Officer Rafael Ramos’ funeral.”

It is highly unlikely that JetBlue generated anything but goodwill for flying cops from around the country to the slain NYPD officer’s funeral so the publicity about its intent to eliminate its first free checked bag for some fare types is likely the overriding factor behind the brand hit.

JetBlue has yet to provide any detail about its looming new bag fee policy but will position it as offering passengers more choice.

“You will hear more about the features of our fare families plan over the next several months,” says Tamara Young, a JetBlue spokesperson. “Fare families will allow customers to choose between three fare bundles, with each option providing new choices that allow customers to tailor the trip to their preferences.”

On the question of adding 15 seats to the airline’s A320 fleet, Young says “customers flying our A321 aircraft have been experiencing our redesigned core cabin interior since we launched it in December 2013, and we’re hearing directly from them that they love it.”

“Our cabin refresh effort will bring to our A320s the same comfy seating with more legroom than any other U.S. carrier in coach, 10-inch video screens with up to 100 free channels of DirecTV and 100-plus channels of SiriusXM Radio, in-seat power access from every seat, complimentary snacks and Fly-Fi Internet.”

Young didn’t directly address the negative reaction in the YouGov survey, which likely comes as no surprise to the airline. JetBlue undoubtedly expects some pushback to its bag fee policy change, and has factored in the reaction, and will chart a response.

Still, the extent of the brand hit is likely a significant concern for JetBlue because most customers likely don’t even know yet about the policy change, which will come later in 2015.

Southwest As a Template?

There isn’t a precise template for what JetBlue can expect from the impending bag fee implementation.

Southwest, which is sticking to its first two free checked bags policy, faced an outcry among its loyalty program members a few years ago when it transitioned Rapid Rewards from a miles-based program to a points system influenced by fare type.

Southwest’s tempest blew over, though, and JetBlue will be hoping for a similar scenario.

The additional seats on JetBlue’s A320s aren’t scheduled to be rolled out until 2016, but cramming more seats into the aircraft won’t win JetBlue many new friends, either.

On the positive side for JetBlue, although its satisfaction score fell in the latest survey, JetBlue maintained its second-place position in value perception behind Southwest, which had the highest satisfaction score overall.

JetBlue didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the YouGov BrandIndex survey.

The YouGov survey had possible scores ranging from -100 to 100. Spirit Airlines was the only U.S. domestic airline in the survey to garner a negative score at -18, and that amounted to an 8.3-point fall compared with the October survey.

Brand Current Score (1/4/2015) Previous Score (10/7/2014) Change in Score
Southwest 63.7 64.2 -0.5
Virgin America 58.3 70.9 -12.6
Alaska Air 56.9 54.8 2.1
JetBlue 52.5 63.8 -11.3
Delta 33.9 31.6 2.3
American Airlines 26.4 25.6 0.8
Frontier 26.2 24.9 1.3
United 21.3 20.6 0.7
US Airways 18.2 15.4 2.8
Spirit Airlines -18.4 -10.1 -8.3

Source: YouGov BrandIndex


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Tags: branding, fees, jetblue airways, southwest airlines

Photo credit: A passenger walks past a JetBlue advertisement at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. Bryan Snyder / Reuters

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