In Barbara S. Peterson’s new book, Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart that Rocked an Industry, she recounts the rise of the design-meets-discount airline through the biography of its renegade Mormon CEO, David Neeleman. Neeleman had no experience in the field when he entered the business during the era of government deregulation (a time friendly to start-up airlines); he later attained, and then lost, a high-level role at the U.S.’s most successful discount airline, Southwest. He’s also credited as creating electronic ticketing, a huge money-saver for the industry as a whole. But his most significant contribution to the industry has been to build a strong brand by bringing together aesthetics, customer service, and discount prices, thus paving the way for the most popular trend in domestic air travel.
Despite the high odds of failure for airline start-ups, JetBlue’s cheap-but-stylish brand has become very successful, appealing to many demographics. By outfitting spacious Airbus planes with leather seats and personal TV screens and dispensing their signature snack gimmick, "blue chips," JetBlue has turned heads in the industry.
Good looks have long been a part of airline culture: In the ’60s, Braniff’s chic stewardesses were dressed by Emilio Pucci, and their airplane interiors designed by Alexander Girard. In the late ’70s, Ralph Lauren design-ed TWA’s uniforms. Even earlier, in the late ’30s, Pan Am’s high-design Boeing 314, equipped with dressing rooms, a stateroom, a dining room, and private passenger suites, was popular with the most fashion-forward crowd. A Pan Am jet famously delivered the Beatles to the U.S. in the ’60s, and received the endorsement "Pan Am, as always" from James Bond. But until now, aesthetics and discount pricing have rarely been marketed so hand-in-hand.
JetBlue looked to the irreverent Virgin Atlantic Airways, an airline relying on looks and catchy ad slogans to market low-cost international flights to the trendy rock-and-roll set, as its mentor. It’s a business model that stands in stark contrast to the traditional no-frills, low-cost marketing approach of discount-airline pioneer Southwest, which offers cheap fares and on-time departures but little else. Southwest’s ascent into one of the top ten national airlines seems to show that perhaps people don’t really care about frills onboard just as long as they save money and reliably get to their destination. This has certainly held true of the European market, where Irish discount airline RyanAir has been very successful with the cost-cutting, no-style approach. (Recently, Ryan went so far as to order planes with non-reclining seats and without window blinds to cut costs, and their rapid expansion suggests that their service is meeting customers’ needs.)
But there are those who do want a frill or two. Noting JetBlue’s successes, major U.S. airlines like Delta and United, eager to remake their businesses, have jumped on the high-style/low-price bandwagon. But instead of focusing on fixing their existing brands—which are suffering from declining customer service and poor comfort—both are adopting a marketing tactic that seeks to return to the aesthetics of air travel’s glamour days while adhering to the sensibility of the dis-count price point. Delta’s regional answer
to JetBlue, Song, offers perks like reasonably priced organic meals and in-seat entertainment that includes movies on demand and digitally streamed MP3 programming, all administered by flight attendants outfitted in uniforms designed by Kate Spade (for gals) or Andy Spade (for guys), for less than the price of a pair of Kate Spade shoes. In 2004, Song was rated as one of the top three domestic airlines by Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.
But does marketing a designer-discount brand really translate into a more successful business? According to Song marketing director Tim Mapes, it does. "Designer looks doesn’t have to mean expensive," he says, an assertion backed up by the fact that Song is currently expanding by 33 percent, from a fleet of 36 planes to that of 48, after just 18 months in busi-ness. "Song is like Volkswagen or Target," explains Mapes.
United has also shifted its focus from the United brand itself to its new designer-discount brand, Ted. As envisioned by the design firm Pentagram, Ted "is targeted towards leisure customers so the plane has a more leisure feel to it," says Tim Simonds, Ted’s director of marketing and planning. "As with any brand, the look and feel are very important to the brand image." But what exactly is a "leisure feel"? It seems to be exemplified in Ted’s product line, which includes baseball caps, water bottles, backpacks, and sports watches—all identify-ing the brand with a casual, athletic lifestyle.
Ted flies from major hubs like Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco to places like Ft. Lauderdale, Puerto Vallarta, and Las Vegas. "We offer a more competitive econo-mic model in specific leisure markets," Simonds explains, "and we are succeeding based on our record load factors [that is to say, the percentage of seats that are filled with passengers]." This success has been healthily facilitated by Ted’s ability to find a niche at United hub O’Hare International Airport, where other designer discounters have yet to tread.
Following JetBlue’s lead may well be the best strategy for major airlines anxious to resuscitate their turbulent businesses.