Skift Take

By ordering Airbus' longest-range narrowbody jet, JetBlue showed it's serious about international expansion. The jet it ordered earlier in the year has enough range to fly to London, so the airline probably intends to fly farther into Europe.

JetBlue Airways’ European strategy became clearer Thursday when the airline committed to an airplane capable of flying not only from the U.S. East Coast to London or Dublin but also from Boston and New York to south, central, and northern Europe.

JetBlue became the third U.S. carrier to say it plans to fly Airbus’ newest narrowbody jet, the A321XLR. Airbus introduced the single-aisle airplane, which should fly as far as 4,700 nautical miles, this week at the Paris Air Show. American Airlines committed to 50 earlier in the week, while Frontier Airlines said it would take 18.

In April JetBlue announced it would fly from its Boston and New York focus cities to London by 2021. But JetBlue didn’t say where else in Europe it might fly, likely because it didn’t have the right aircraft for Continental Europe. For London JetBlue had committed to the A321LR (LR stands for long range), which has a 600-mile range gap compared to its XLR (or extra long range) cousin.

JetBlue said Thursday it will take 13 A321XLRs, with first delivery in 2023. This is in addition to 13 A321LRs it ordered earlier this year.

“The fact they committed to XLRs means they are committing to a very long range aircraft,” said Jay Shabat, senior analyst at Skift Airline Weekly. “This truly does open up more European city pairs. They can go deeper into Europe form New York and Boston. You are even starting to talk about southern Europe too, including Italy.”

JetBlue has said it plans to update its cabin for long-range routes, and these airplanes are expected to have a new Mint business class, as well as a refreshed economy class. The airline wants to entice customers to switch from legacy carriers by offering a better product at lower prices.

South America too

JetBlue executives speak most often about Europe, but they long have been intrigued by routes into South America.

They’ve been limited by the fleet. But this year JetBlue is taking delivery of the A321neo, the longest range aircraft it has ever flown. In December it will use the airplane on what will be its longest route, New York to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Both the A321 LR and XLR will fly farther, allowing the airline to expand to deep South America. While New York to São Paulo still will be impossible, Shabat said the new airplane could fly from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Argentina and Brazil.

South America on its own is an intriguing market. It’s also counter-seasonal to Europe, making it a good place to send airplanes when leisure travelers don’t want to visit Europe.

“For them, South America is kind of a big deal too,” Shabat said. “You can put that airplane on JFK to Frankfurt in the summer and turn it around and send it to Brazil in the winter.”

Less Flexibility

One reason JetBlue executives like the Airbus A321LR is because it’s essentially the same aircraft the airline already flies on domestic U.S. routes, just with more range.

But the plane introduced this week is different. Airbus is increasing the range by installing an additional tank to hold more fuel, making it a structurally different airplane.

It sounds like a minor change, but JetBlue wouldn’t be able to take the extra tank out. If the airline decided it wanted to pull out of Europe someday, it could use the airplane on domestic routes, but it wouldn’t be ideal, Shabat said.

It’s an issue JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes addressed last year in an interview, after news broke that Airbus was considering building the airplane.

“All the LR really is, is a third auxiliary fuel tank, so you can always take it out of the airplane and fly the airplane in the rest of your network,” he said then. “The XLR has a fuel tank bladder, and it’s got some other changes that make it a different airplane.”

But there’s still some flexibility, Shabat said. First delivery is four years away, so if JetBlue executives change their mind before then, the airline should have the right to convert the order into a different type of aircraft. Airlines change their orders all the time, depending on market conditions.

Even this XLR order is just a conversion. JetBlue said it will take the 13 new planes by converting an earlier order from A321neos to A321XLRs.

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Tags: airbus, europe, jetblue airways

Photo credit: JetBlue has committed to 13 long-range Airbus jets. The airline already flies an earlier version of the airplane, the A321. Sharon Steinmann / via AP

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