MIAMI — I woke up at 4:15 am at my home in Central New Jersey and immediately rushed out the door to my car (having packed the night before) to meet my flight scheduled for 7AM. Being so early, the drive was relatively painless. The Van Wyck Expressway was remarkably clear for that time of day, and I got to JFK’s long term lot by 5:55 am. That’s when the trouble started.
By the time I parked, I had missed an AirTrain by less than a minute. And the AirTrain at JFK only runs once every seven to twelve minutes, at least headed in the direction of the terminals, though the return trains from the terminal to Howard Beach seemed to show up every two minutes. And my train was on the higher end of that, taking a full twelve minutes after the previous one to show up. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they don’t run these every three to four minutes. Almost every other major airport in the country with an AirTrain-esque system manages a maximum wait time of five minutes. At JFK on the other hand…
By the time I got onto the AirTrain, it was 6:12 am, and I was getting a little antsy. My flight, scheduled to depart in 50 minutes, was on-time. JetBlue closes off the gate at t-minus 15, so I had to make it to Terminal 5, through security, and to my gate in 38 minutes. It took fifteen minutes to get to Terminal 5, with every second felt like an eternity.
When I disembarked at 6:27 am, I immediately made a beeline for the security checkpoint, hoping against all hope for a shorter line. Nope. The line was jam packed, with wait times of at least 30-35 minutes. I was doomed, or so it seemed. Then, in the recesses of my sleep-addled brain, I thought back to the check in process and remembered that JetBlue sold expedited security access as part of its Even More Speed offering. A quick glance at the Even More Speed line showed a queue of just fifteen passengers, as opposed to the thousand (this is probably an over-estimate) waiting in the normal security line. I quickly jumped over to a kiosk and added the Even More Speed tag to my purchase, re-printed my boarding pass, and jumped into line at 6:36 am. By the time I made it through the standard TSA “trained monkey” routine, only seven minutes had passed, allowing me to sprint to Gate 19 and reach the gate with four minutes to spare where the brand new Airbus A321 awaited.
My first experience of JetBlue’s Terminal 5 was admittedly rushed, but the atmosphere and décor seemed very aesthetically pleasing, and there appeared to be a nice array of shops and dining options to choose from. After boarding, I settled into my window seat of 7A, a standard economy class seat. For the longest time it seemed like I would have an empty middle seat next to me, but at the last possible moment, another man came and sat down next to me.
The first thing you notice on a JetBlue flight is always the legroom, and there’s loads of it. Nominally the seat pitch is 34 inches, which is about what you get in Economy Plus on United (and the premium economy cabins for Delta and American). But the JetBlue A321 seats felt much more spacious for whatever reason (the wider seats probably help,) and these were just standard economy class seats. I imagine that the Even More Space seats feel like sitting in domestic First Class.
Once I had settled down, I began to scan the aircraft and the seats around me. JetBlue is famed for its LiveTV entertainment system, but at the moment, the A321s have not yet been installed with the updated LiveTV system and FlyFi (JetBlue’s new in-flight WiFi). Both form the entertainment portion of the new JetBlue core travel experience. However, as a form of apology for the lack of LiveTV, customers are offered a $15 service credit, which is redeemable for use on a future JetBlue flight. This is a nice touch.
The new fleet of A321s is the launch pad for the new core experience, which includes the aforementioned enhanced entertainment, in-seat power, new drink holders, and new seats. The new seats in particular are innovative, replacing the hard seat cushion with a woven fabric that suspends from both sides of the seat, and are already installed. This core product will be installed onto JetBlue’s new A321s in the middle of Q1 2014 and will be rolled out across the rest of the fleet slowly thereafter.
The flight was completely full and as we dealt with the standard 20-25 minute ground delay at the gate at JFK (we ended up taking off 45 minutes late at 7:51 am), I could sense the passengers around me getting antsy. One wisecracking passenger in particular was seated across the aisle from me in 7F, and was the source of much amusement throughout the flight. At that particular moment he commented, “Looks like this new plane isn’t enough to cover up the mess that is JFK,” and when we were at the gate in San Juan he asked where the celebratory rice and beans were for the inaugural.
While I’m certainly as much of a fan of sarcasm as the next guy (cue to everyone who’s ever read one of my pieces nodding in unison), this guy probably took it a little bit over the top, especially with the way he treated the flight attendants. My philosophy on flight attendants has always been to treat them with extreme courtesy and kindness, regardless of how bad they are in return (it just makes flying so much easier). And to their credit, the flight attendants handled this joker with aplomb, trading barbs right back while still maintaining a professional and smiling demeanor.
That was another standout aspect of the flight – JetBlue’s flight attendants. I always say that there are only two airlines in the US that provide consistently good service; JetBlue and Southwest. And that consistency begins and ends with the flight attendants. Part of it certainly goes back to JetBlue’s founding culture, and the way David Neelman managed to achieve complete commitment and integration of labor with the company. But it’s also due to the way the company has pursued labor-management relations. Much like Southwest, JetBlue treats its employees as assets, and its employees respond in kind by becoming assets and providing the fantastic customer service that gives JetBlue its stellar reputation with passengers.
There are a million and one things that JetBlue flight attendants do well, but to select just one, when we were deplaning, a few customers were grumbling about the lack of LiveTV on the flight. The flight attendants were quick to jump in and explain that the TVs were only missing temporarily, throwing in a “JetBlue loves you all” at the end for (feel?) good measure.
Turning back to the flight, once we were airborne, I grabbed a cup of coffee and my customary can of ginger ale, as well as some popcorn chips and Linden’s Butter Crunch cookies. JetBlue’s snack basket is another unique selling point, at least on domestic flights. To get food of the same quality from United, Delta, or American, you’re buying a snack basket for $8 or $9, and heck, on my Chicago-Newark flight last week in First Class, the snack basket United trotted out paled in comparison to what you get on JetBlue for free (though it did have Toblerone). The paid snack boxes are not of as high of a quality as those on United, but they are reasonably priced. With no LiveTV to whittle away my time with, I spent most of the remainder of the flight working quietly on my laptop, mixing in an hour-long nap to boot.
As far as inaugural flights go, JetBlue’s first non-premium A321 inaugural was extremely low key. The flight crew made a couple of references to the new aircraft and the first flight over the PA, and when we touched down at 11:59 am local (23 minutes past schedule), the flight crew asked us all to applaud (and we obliged).
While it may have been understated on the flight, it was not lost on the crew: we touched down at gate A2 in San Juan andthere were plenty of JetBlue crew there to welcome the new bird. Overall, it made sense that the inaugural was nondescript given that these aircraft haven’t been fully outfitted with the new travel experience that they will eventually come to represent. We fully expect JetBlue to celebrate the launch of its new A321s with Mint (and maybe even the first A321 installed with the new core experience) with appropriate fanfare, and look forward to reporting it when the exciting day comes.