People who like what JetBlue offers will still be eager to fly on the airline's redesigned aircraft. But adding more seats will make the passenger experience a little more cramped.
JetBlue Airways Corp. has been talking about the first full revamp of its workhorse jetliner for a long time. This fall, almost 18 years since the popular low-cost carrier arrived at airports, it’s finally going to happen, and while there are plenty of bells and whistles to get you oohing and ahhing, there’s a little surprise that may leave you groaning.
Along with a larger, 10-inch touch screen, more than 100 live television channels, and a new link to the aircraft’s Wi-Fi system that lets you watch your own content on the plane’s screen, the new versions of the A320 will also include a dozen more seats squeezed in among the 150 already there.
That’s the picture of a cabin-refresh happening over the next three years. Longer-term, JetBlue wants to get even more stylish with a redesign aimed at creating the perception of larger, more spacious cabins. That effort mirrors some of the design work seen on newer aircraft, such as Bombardier Inc.’s C Series jet and the modern look of bigger, long-haul aircraft from Airbus SE and Boeing Co. The design on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner also trickled down to new cabin styling for its smaller 737 family. Called the Boeing Sky Interior, it was introduced in late 2010. That cabin is now standard on Boeing’s newest single-aisle, the 737 Max.
Airbus meanwhile launched its “Airspace” cabin on A350 and A330neo aircraft before migrating the design to its single-aisle planes, a new product it introduced Tuesday at the APEX Expo conference in Long Beach, Calif.
Over time, the Airspace cabin JetBlue is helping to debut will become the default for the A320 line. It’s the result of almost 18 months of research at airports worldwide “to see what people are really carrying on board,” said Ingo Wuggetzer, vice president of cabin marketing at Airbus. That work, plus discussions with airlines and passenger feedback, discovered three primary areas that needed improvement.
The biggest? Overhead bins, where turf battles often erupt due to travelers’ desire to avoid checking bags (and paying fees). Airbus designers concluded that another approach was needed, so the new bin has 40 percent more volume and no rotating parts, he said. “The overhead storage is not big enough today,” Wuggetzer said. “I think we spent most of the effort in our work to get the size right.”
The cabin entryway will be updated with “more wow” and customization depending on the airline, Wuggetzer said. Mood lights will play a large role in this effort, similar to those seen by anyone who has boarded a Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. or Virgin America flight. The LED lighting system offers roughly 16 million color permutations, so there are many available moods for your flight.
“Passengers boarding from the jetway will sense immediately they’ve left behind the airport hustle and bustle and can relax,” as Boeing put it in a 2009 promotional blurb for its Sky Interior.
Another insight: Passengers perceive airplane bathrooms as dirty, regardless of their actual condition. In response, the new lavatories will also have an array of airline customer options: more mood lighting, faucets that won’t need to be touched to turn on, antibacterial surfaces, and an aroma dispenser. Relaxation is meant to permeate every corner of the fuselage.
But before the relaxing can begin, the seats will be squeezed in. The initial, pre-Airspace A320 project will take about three years to complete and is expected to produce $100 million in financial benefit due to the increased seat count, JetBlue has told investors. As it did with the introduction of a checked-bag fee in 2015, the airline has been inching cautiously toward legroom squeeze—or “cabin densification” in industry lingo. The 12 new seats will reduce seat pitch across the main cabin by 2 inches, to 32 inches, but was planned so JetBlue can still tout “the most legroom in coach” based on average fleet-wide space among U.S. airlines.
Outfitting the planes with 162 seats instead of 150 will also require moving two bathrooms and installing a new galley, engineering work that has slowed the project. That still leaves JetBlue short of the 165-seat plan it set in late 2014 and the 186 seats some carriers have crammed into the same plane.
The airline has 37 Airbus jets scheduled for delivery through 2020, with all but six of those the larger A321 model in the single-aisle Airbus family. Longer term, JetBlue has ordered an additional 65 Airbus planes.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.
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Photo credit: Passengers board a JetBlue plane. The airline is unveiling its redesign this fall. Bloomberg