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At JetBlue, stretching conventions

The secret to roomier seats, plus the new airline scene in Washington, DC.
Image: JetBlue
JetBlue was No. 1 in quality among U.S. airlines in 2003, the first year that it carried enough passengers to be ranked, according to an annual study released Monday April 5, 2004Toby Talbot / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

On most airlines, the best seats are in the front of the cabin.

But on JetBlue Airways, known for its unconventional approach, the best seats are in the back. The low-cost carrier, which has only one class of seating, gives passengers behind the 10th row an extra two inches of legroom — a perk the airline doesn't advertise.

“It's a tough nut to crack,” said JetBlue spokesman Gareth Edmondson Jones. “Beyond Row 10 is an odd advertising campaign.”

The nontraditional configuration highlights the offbeat yet accommodating style that has turned JetBlue into a favorite among many passengers. Travelers are drawn to the four-year-old carrier for its fares — often as much as 40 percent lower than competitors — its leather seats and its 24-channel satellite TV in every seat.

Most airlines reserve extra legroom for their better-paying or most loyal customers in the front of the plane. United, for instance, offers extra legroom in its economy-plus section located between first class and coach.

JetBlue's extra rear seat space exists because the airline removed a row in the back to allow passengers in the last row to recline their seats. JetBlue has balked, however, at taking out a row in the front of the cabin to expand legroom there.

Passenger comfort and customer service are hallmarks of JetBlue, which was one of the few major carriers to earn a profit last year. The airline, which has reported a profit for the past three years, earned $103.9 million in 2003. It also paid out nearly $31 million to employees last year as part of its profit-sharing plan.

Pleasing passengers

In addition to its extra legroom, JetBlue has taken note of the wider girth of passengers these days. It has added an inch to the width of its seat cushions. “Passengers have gotten a little bigger over the years,” said David Neeleman, JetBlue chief executive.

The airline also has come up with an unconventional way to placate inconvenienced passengers. During a recent flight from John F. Kennedy International in New York to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a fistfight broke out between two passengers over an armrest. The plane was diverted to Wilmington, N.C., where the airline ordered pizzas for passengers and handed out $50 flight vouchers. JetBlue also had pizzas brought in for passengers in Fort Lauderdale who were delayed because of the incident.

JetBlue is able to keep fares low by selling most of its tickets online and by having its telephone reservation agents work from home. The carrier's costs for salaries and benefits are much lower than those of its competitors.

Service in DC

JetBlue flew 338,209 passengers out of Dulles International Airport last year, up 56 percent from 2002, making it the fifth-most-popular airline at Dulles, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The airline started its service at Dulles just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has nonstop flights from Dulles to three locations: Long Beach, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; and Fort Lauderdale. In May, it will begin flying to Sacramento.

Competition among low-cost airlines is heating up at Dulles. As carriers move in or expand existing service there, Dulles is becoming Washington's main low-cost hub, while Baltimore-Washington International remains dominated by Southwest Airlines.

AirTran Airways has announced plans to expand its flights out of Dulles later this year. In April, United Airlines began flying its low-cost unit Ted. This summer, Dulles-based Atlantic Coast Airlines will be reinvented as Independence. Britain's Virgin Atlantic chief executive Richard Branson has said he is considering housing his American low-cost operation, Virgin USA, at Dulles. Amid the sharp competition, Delta Air Lines recently pulled its fledgling low-cost carrier, Song, out of Dulles.

JetBlue's Neeleman said the “window of opportunity” for low-cost carriers to start up has passed. “We're going to lay low and watch and see what happens,” he said.

He added that JetBlue's experience with customer service gives it a distinct advantage. “Some airlines think if you put a TV in the seatback, then you can become JetBlue. It's more than that,” he said.

Frequent flier Mike Connor said he prefers JetBlue to other low-cost carriers because of the satellite TV. The Herndon resident said he wasn't aware of the extra legroom in the back of the plane. Neither was Ryan Boyle of Antioch, Calif. Both men fly United primarily for business and JetBlue on vacation.

“The seats [on JetBlue] are pretty comfortable. And the entertainment is better than anything they have on United,” Boyle said.