Passengers disembark from a JetBlue aircraft in Long Beach. The carrier… (Patrick T. Fallon, Bloomberg )
The battle for high-spending executives flying coast to coast is heating up, with low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways joining several major airlines offering roomy lie-flat seats on flights from California to New York.
The move by the New York-based carrier to add the spacious seats on 11 Airbus planes suggests that it is ready to go head-to-head with much bigger companies for the highly competitive and profitable traffic from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York.
And it is the latest example of airlines eliminating or squeezing the economy section to install higher-priced seats for passengers ready to spend on luxury travel. JetBlue has, until now, only offered economy seats.
The transcontinental routes, favored by bankers, entertainment executives and others, are among the most popular domestic routes in the country. More than 3 million passengers flew from Los Angeles to New York in the 12 months ending in April, according to federal statistics.
Round-trip tickets on business and first-class seats on cross-country flights sell for $3,000 to $5,000 on Virgin America, Delta and United Airlines, while economy seats for the same routes are priced at about $600 to $700.
Although JetBlue has yet to announce the price of the new lie-flat seats, JetBlue Chief Executive Dave Barger said he believes his airline can outmatch his much larger competitors on price.
"Transcontinental routes have had high premium fares we believe we can beat," he said.
The lie-flat seats will be sold as business class, which comes as no surprise because many corporate travel managers have adopted cost-cutting measures in recent years that prohibit business travelers from buying first-class seats. In response, many airlines are now categorizing their most luxurious seats as business class.
"Pricing and how they code these new seats is terribly important," said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel expert and online columnist on the airline industry.
The addition of the roomier, high-priced seats may be a response to an airline industry that has begun to enjoy more profit after rebounding from a dismal financial period following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession.
"Now we have airlines that are not just struggling to get through the day, they have money to invest in their product," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner for Airline Weekly, an industry newsletter. "Several years ago, it didn't matter what people wanted, they just could not meet the demands."
JetBlue joins several airlines that announced plans in the last few months to offer lie-flat seats on cross-country flights.
For its transcontinental flights, American Airlines plans to take delivery, beginning in November, of Airbus A321 jets with 20 lie-flat seats in the business-class section.
In March, Delta Air Lines began offering lie-flat seats in its Business Elite section on fights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York.
In May, United Airlines announced plans to install lie-flat seats on its Premium Service section on flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York, with a complete rollout expected by the end of the year.
JetBlue is not skimping on comfort. The new seats added to the A321 jets will have adjustable firmness, a massage function, 15-inch widescreen television screens and a "wake me for service" indicator if the passenger decides to sleep.
The airline will also offer a few private suites with doors that can be closed.