JetBlue Airways Corp., facing heightened competition from the planned merger of Alaska and Virgin America airlines, will expand its Mint first-class service to four new cities starting early next year.

The carrier expects to add Mint to some cross-country flights at Las Vegas, San Diego, Seattle and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, continuing growth of the premium product that debuted in 2014.

JetBlue announced the additions Tuesday, about a week after its decision to opt out of a bidding war for Virgin America Inc. allowed Alaska Air Group Inc. to announce a $2.6 billion purchase. While the cities were selected some time ago, JetBlue’s stepped-up premium offerings will give it an extra competitive tool as it faces further consolidation of the U.S. industry.

“We’ve been looking at Mint expansion at least a year and a half, figuring out how much bigger Mint can be for us,” Marty St. George, the carrier’s executive vice president for planning, said in a telephone interview. The original Mint routes are the top revenue generators in the airline’s system and “have had an incredible impact. Who would not want to try to duplicate that elsewhere?”

Private Suites

JetBlue ended its coach-class-only strategy when it began offering Mint in 2014 between New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco to retain passengers who were looking for more amenities on coast-to-coast flights at a lower price. Mint fares can dip as low as $599 each way.

The carrier added Boston-San Francisco in March, with Boston-Los Angeles set to start in October. Mint has expanded mostly on a seasonal basis to some Caribbean destinations, with service to St. Maarten and St. Lucia in the future.

The Mint cabin includes 16 lie-flat seats, including four “private suites” that have partitions that can be closed. Passengers also have 15-inch flat video screens on seat backs, power outlets, USB ports and customized menus. JetBlue will add 10 Airbus Group SE A321 aircraft to its fleet in 2017, and nine will feature the first-class cabin.

By the end of next year, 26 of the carrier’s 234 aircraft will have Mint.

Alaska-Virgin Deal

The first of the new routes will start in the first quarter of 2017, with others beginning in 2018, JetBlue said. The additions, which St. George called a “natural progression” of the Mint product, will be Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Diego to New York and Boston, Seattle to New York and Boston and Las Vegas to New York.

“I don’t think any of us are in any way worried about our ability to compete in this marketplace,” St. George said. “The fact that customer choice is shrinking plays to our strengths.”

Alaska, bolstered by the Virgin America deal, will have a strong presence along the U.S. West Coast as well as cross-country service to flight-constrained airports in New York and Washington. The two airlines expect U.S. regulatory approval for the combination in the second half of this year.

©2016 Bloomberg L.P.

This article was written by Mary Schlangenstein from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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Photo Credit: A passenger in a private suite, which is part of JetBlue's new Mint service. JetBlue Airways