JetBlue Airways is finally modernizing interiors on its older Airbus airplanes, adding new seats with adjustable headrests, in-seat power, better televisions and LED lighting — a welcome change, considering many of its aircraft have barely been updated in a decade or more.
But it’s not all good news. When all 130 Airbus A320s get the new product — the first plane is in the shop now — JetBlue will have shrunk passenger legroom. Customers should have about 32 inches of pitch, a decrease from 34 inches, though JetBlue stresses that, fleetwide, it will retain the most average legroom among U.S. airlines. The modernized interiors will roughly match what’s already flying on the airline’s newer and larger Airbus A321s.
JetBlue’s updated all-coach A320s will have 162 seats, up from 150. That is still not so shabby, considering Frontier Airlines fits 180 coach seats in the same plane.
The retrofit plan is considerably behind schedule, a result of issues with the planes’ toilets and in-flight entertainment system. JetBlue first delighted Wall Street in 2014 with its densification plans, promising to add 15 seats to the A320s — both to modernize the planes, and increase revenue per seat. The airline amended it plan in early 2016, after it calculated 15 extra seats would cause too much of a space crunch for its crews.
When it changed plans in January 2016, JetBlue called for retrofits to begin in early 2017, with completion by 2019. It’s not likely to hit that completion date anymore.
On JetBlue’s fourth quarter earnings call Thursday, CFO Steve Priest said it may take up to 36 months to finish the project, though he did not commit to a project completion date. Each plane takes about 30 days to overhaul, he said.
But Priest, who is more focused on finances than product, said the timeline hinges most on finding the most efficient schedule for the airline’s finances and its operation. JetBlue is unlikely to want to remove planes from service during busy seasons, for example.
For every airline, retrofitting the first plane is usually the toughest. Regulators must certify the updates, and sometimes carriers learn about unexpected problems — as a homeowner might when renovating an older house.
“There is some certification work that we’re going through,” Priest said. “We want to make sure that we have the quality of the product right. And then once we’ve done that we will progress with the rest of the program.”
Issues with product quality have plagued JetBlue since it announced the program. Seth Miller, an airline industry expert and blogger, said in a post that Thales, which makes the in-flight entertainment screens, had trouble producing the product JetBlue wanted. Instead, Miller noted in a post this week, JetBlue will have to install different screens than initially expected.
Toilets have also been a concern. Like many carriers, JetBlue already had installed smaller bathrooms on its A321s, which permit it to add more seats. However, in October 2017 on an earnings call, Priest said JetBlue was experiencing “design failures” on those planes that required repair. He said JetBlue didn’t want to install the same space-saving bathrooms on the retrofitted A320s and then take them out of service again for repairs.