Is JetBlue becoming the Alaska Air of the East?

The more I think about the recently announced deal between American Airlines and JetBlue the more I am struck with just how similar JetBlue is to Alaska Airlines. And I cannot help but think that is a good thing for JetBlue; Alaska ha been incredibly successful in their strategy and the JetBlue approach seems quite similar.

Just how similar are they? The numbers tell the tale. Each is the dominant carrier in at least one airport in a major metro area. OK, that’s not too impressive since pretty much every successful airline has a hub in a major metro.

  • The fleets are almost identical in size and are very similar in makeup. JetBlue operates 110 Airbus A320s and 41 Embraer E90s. Alaska operates 114 Boeing 737s and 58 regional aircraft (18 CRJ-700s, 40 Dash8-400s) through their relationship with Horizon Air.
  • Both airlines focus significantly on north-south routes of about 1,000 miles or less, JetBlue on the East Coast and Alaska on the West Coast; they each also operate a few transcons and mid-con flights, but those are not the bulk of the flights. They each have a few international routes but nothing too long in the air; they’re limited in many ways by their fleet.
  • JetBlue is actually a bit larger in terms of flights operated and passengers carried but the revenue numbers are very similar: both are in the $3 Billion annually range.

And then there are the partnerships they have. Neither is part of a major global alliance. They for partnerships of convenience for specific needs. JetBlue partners with Aer Lingus, Lufthansa and soon with American. Alaska partners with a whole bunch of folks, including codeshares with American and Delta. Both are stable and would likely survive without those partnerships but having them makes a huge difference in attracting frequent flyers.

The market opportunities that the Alaska Air’s partnerships offer are smaller than the global alliances but not by much. They have relationships with enough domestic and foreign carriers that folks earning miles in their Mileage Plan program can redeem for travel pretty much anywhere in the world. JetBlue isn’t quite there yet, but they seem to be moving in that direction and the new TrueBlue 2 program was designed to permit such opportunities.

It will be a while before the AA/JetBlue deal really plays out to the point that there are palpable results for either carrier. Further developments in the relationship will take even longer. In the meantime, it appears – at least to me – that JetBlue is following the same trajectory as Alaska Air, and they’ve got good reason to do so. They may actually be in a stronger position to make such a move given their positions in the New York City and Boston markets. Those are much harder to break in to than Seattle would be should someone want to challenge them.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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