JetBlue joins what has become an accelerating race to the top in domestic air travel. Delta announced last week that all eight of its daily nonstops between New York and Los Angeles are being equipped with the beds, which have been de rigueur for the discerning international traveler for at least a decade. American, United and Virgin America have all been aggressively expanding their lie-flat offerings.
For JetBlue, the shift to first class is a striking change in strategy, and in some ways in its culture. Since it started service in 2000, JetBlue distinguished itself just as much by what it offered - satellite TV and radio on every seat back, leather seats, the most legroom of any carrier and blue potato chips - as what it did not - a first-class or business-class section.
But in recent years its profit margins began to shrink as fuel costs rose and other airlines turned their attention to the front of the cabin. It has left JetBlue, analysts and executives say, with no choice but to chase the high-end market.
"New York and L.A. are the richest markets out there and there's just a lot of people willing to pay for this," said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst. "So you either claim your fair share of those people or you leave it on the table for others to take, and airlines can't afford to leave that kind of money on the table for others to steal."
David Barger, JetBlue's president, agreed, saying that with an improved economy, he was afraid of losing loyal customers who wanted a more pampered experience for cross-country flights.
"It forced us to get in the game or get out," said Barger, who added that he also saw a market niche. "First-class and business fares are rude. There's no reason to have to pay $3,000 for a lie-flat experience."
Mint service begins at $599, far below the $1,500-$1,800 that major carriers charge for one-way, first-class tickets between New York and Los Angeles. But the introductory fares will rise once JetBlue gets a better handle on the market, Barger said.
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By early next year, Barger said, JetBlue should have 11 of the new Airbus A321 aircraft in operation, giving it 276 premium seats to sell.
This is no small move. Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, said each new seat could cost $50,000 and up, depending on what an airline orders.
Harteveldt said the development of Mint service was a significant step in the evolution of JetBlue away from being a discount airline committed to the coach traveler.
"This is the most tangible form of showing that the Jet Blue that's flying now is a very different one from the airline that started almost 15 years ago," Harteveldt said. "This move shows a desire to compete with a product that matters, but in a very focused way. This is not going to show up on a flight from New York to Buffalo or Boston to San Juan. It's a smart move."
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Barger said JetBlue was targeting small-business owners and executives, not necessarily the high-end corporate traveler. Specifically, someone like Mary Alice Foote, a marketing executive who returned home on Thursday from a trip to New York in a Mint class seat.