MIAMI — JetBlue has found itself in the limelight several times in the past few months. It will introduce Mint premium service on transcontinental routes in June, just premiered A321 service on JFK-SJU, and recently launched superfast Fly-Fi service on A320 aircraft. Despite all of the fanfare surrounding its most recent accomplishments, it’s not as if these are its first forays into the world of passenger experience.
In fact, JetBlue prides itself on having one of the best complimentary passenger experiences in the industry — one checked bag free, unlimited snacks and soft drinks onboard every flight, and free AVOD with DirecTV at every seat. Aside from its occasional winter weather meltdown, the carrier has developed a solid reputation and nearly fanatical following. I recently flew JetBlue between New York and Washington, and had a chance to experience the carrier’s most basic level of service. The question is, did it live up to the hype?
Landside / Check-In / Security
I was scheduled to fly the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, which was looking iffy thanks to a storm that was causing delays at Northeast airports, primarily because of wind. My evening departure pitted me right on the cusp of predicted delays. While this wasn’t the news I wanted to hear, it would be the first test of JetBlue customer service.
I headed to the airport via the LIRR and AirTrain, arriving around 3:00pm for my 5:40pm departure. I had already checked in online, but needed to drop off my checked bag. JetBlue does have an iPhone app with Passbook integration, so you can skip checking in with an agent or at a kiosk if you’re doing carry-on only. The check-in area is large space-wise, but there are only about eight or so manned desks. It didn’t seem to be a problem on this occasion, as I had to wait less than five minutes to send my bag on its way, but during peak periods it may be crazy.
Security was perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the entire operation. I had upgraded to an Even More Space seat, which comes with Even More Speed priority boarding and security for a limited time. There were two TSA officers checking IDs at security: one was solely devoted to the non-expedited line, and one was alternating between another non-expedited line and the Even More Speed line. This setup is common at many airports across the board, and typically when passengers with expedited security screening turn up, their IDs are checked before others in the non-expedited lane. In this case, the agent was alternating back and forth between Even More Space passengers and the passengers in the non-expedited lane. While this is perhaps a more fair approach, it sort of defeats the purpose of expedited security. It took about ten minutes to get past the ID check.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get better during screening. Employees, who neither work for Jetblue or the TSA but are contracted through a third party, were directing passengers to security lines seemingly in a random fashion. They directed me to one line, but I quickly scanned the open lanes and saw one that was moving more quickly and looked mostly to be comprised of business-type travelers, so I stepped out of the line I was in and began to walk over to the shorter one. I was immediately stopped by one of the stewards who ordered me back into the original line, saying that switching was not an option, and I needed to stay where I was directed. All in all, security took about 45 minutes, much longer than it needed to.
After clearing security, it was time to explore JetBlue’s Terminal 5. The terminal is laid out in a semi-triangular shape. Security lets out into a central area with the majority of restaurants and shops, and there are a handful of gates to your left or right, and then a long hallway with gates directly in front of you. The concourse is bright and modern, with high ceilings and plentiful seating, somewhat reminiscent of SFO’s T2.
As far as dining goes, there were plenty of options to go around (full list here: http://www.jetblue.com/travel/jfk/), but it was a pleasant surprise to see some more playful options in the terminal: Popular cupcakery Baked by Melissa, Cheeburger Cheeburger, Ben and Jerry’s, and Illy Coffee. Of course, there were the requisite grab-and-go staples, as well as a variety of more formal dining experiences covering everything from sushi to barbecue.
After placing my order and swiping my credit card, I was given an estimated delivery of 2:30am (?) and an order number. I figured this was just a glitch and had work to do any way, so with plenty of time before my flight, I just waited. And waited. And waited. After about a half-hour of waiting for my hummus and pita bowl, I pressed the “Assistance” button on the screen, which assured me that someone would be over immediately.
Well, an hour came and went, with no food in sight. With fifteen minutes before scheduled boarding, I needed to find food, and ended up with so-so sandwich, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. While JetBlue isn’t responsible for the food ordering system (it’s implemented and managed by OTG, a contractor), it is part of the experience, and reflects badly on the airline when things don’t go as planned. The same goes for security — while they can’t necessarily control the TSA and their actions, they can control lane management post-ID check, and it would serve the airline well to create a more orderly and expeditious process.
The Flight – Jetblue 1407, JFK-IAD
As I mentioned earlier, weather conditions were iffy in the Northeast. At JFK, things were running smoothly, but my aircraft was arriving from Syracuse, NY, where things were not going so smoothly. The aircraft left Syracuse late, meaning an hour’s departure delay here at JFK. The gate crew were extremely communicative and gave us updates every ten minutes or so, which was appreciated.
Our E190 pulled up to the gate around 5:45, and the passengers were quickly offloaded, service trucks pulled up, and by 6:00, we were boarding. Even More Space and Mosaic customers board first, and, after that, JetBlue boards by rows, back to front. I was nearly first onboard, and took my bulkhead seat, 1A (note that photos are from return trip, hence the extra legroom).
Flight time is around 50 minutes, so an expedited snack service was conducted. Passenger were given the choice of water, Coke, Diet Coke, or Sprite, and either Linden’s Butter Crunch Cookies or a nut mix — I was disappointed that the Terra Blue chips didn’t make an appearance, but such is life. By the time the flight attendants had completed service and were on their way back through to pick up trash, we were descending into Washington. The flight attendants were cheery and pleasant on this flight, and the captain made active use of the intercom, keeping us informed every step of the way.
With such a short flight, there was little time to fully explore JetBlue’s AVOD system. However, I did get to scroll through the 36 channels of DirecTV, which came through loud and clear, and glanced at the moving map every so often. If I were to fault the system, I would say that the small screen size is its largest downside, but it was perfectly adequate for such a short flight.
Presently, I think JetBlue’s biggest asset is its people. Every JetBlue employee I encountered was extremely helpful, warm, and kind. It is clear that the “customer first” ideology is clearly ingrained into the JetBlue culture, and I think JetBlue is doing a great job providing excellent customer service.
With that said, I think I was expecting to be blown away, and, to be honest, I wasn’t. The security checkpoint situation is an absolute mess. It seems that a better system of lane management could be implemented so that everyone gets through faster — business travelers don’t need to be stuck behind families or inexperienced travelers. Plus, expedited security (“Even More Speed”) doesn’t seem so expedited.
As I mentioned, it’s currently included with Even More Space purchases, but I wouldn’t spend the money outright for it, at least not at JFK. Secondly, the touchscreen meal ordering system at T5 is an absolute failure. If the system is going to be in place, it needs to work. In fairness, after I tweeted my displeasure to OTG, someone followed up with me, refunded the charge, and promised me a better experience next time. Are these in JetBlue’s control? Probably not on either, but both reflected poorly on the overall experience.
As far as Even More Space seating goes, I think it’s absolutely worth $20 each way. Priority boarding means your bag is more likely to ride overhead (especially on JetBlue’s smaller E-190s – there was a lot of gate-checking amongst the passengers who boarded towards the end of the process), and the legroom is adequate. On the return, I chose row 14, the E-190 exit row, and there was miles of legroom, owing to the already-generous configuration and the presence of the exit (see photos above).
I think it’s an interesting time of transition for JetBlue. Its soft product is its biggest asset, and customer service is definitely better than many of its legacy counterparts. However, the hard product isn’t as revolutionary as it once was. Legroom is plentiful and highly appreciated, but small-ish seatback TVs and no onboard power means that JetBlue needs to play catch-up in order to stay competitive. The launch of its Mint service this year will be a huge upgrade for passengers flying transcontinental routes, but it looks like the rest of us will just have to wait.