Routes Reconnected: JetBlue has announced more routes this year than in the last five
Routes Reconnected put the spotlight on North America and Canada in a panel session featuring senior stakeholders from JetBlue, San Antonio International Airport, and Swoop.
Andrea Lusso, Vice President Network Planning, JetBlue, explained that customer confidence that air travel is safe is key to the recovery. “Customers want to travel – there is pent up demand. For a primarily leisure carrier like JetBlue, we feel that demand is ready to go. Vaccines will certainly help but, in the meantime, testing will be very critical. We advocate a holistic approach and uniformity to testing requirements, in order to help customers gain confidence in air travel.”
JetBlue has been working extensively on health and safety, from sanitisation through to communicating the right protocols and ensuring personal protective equipment is worn.
Lusso commented that JetBlue has been very tactical during the COVID-19 crisis, in terms of ensuring it extracts the most value out of its fleet. “That means parking the most expensive tails and trying to minimise expenditure. The theme is trying to fly the most efficient planes. Our goal, of course, is to go back to full size and we don’t have any plans at the moment to permanently retire any of the aircraft. Efficiency will remain key, including things like ownership and maintenance costs.”
JetBlue has been very active, announcing around 60 new routes this year, which is more than it announced in the last five years together. “We’ve been quite creative in using some of those planes we had parked in the desert to expand the breadth of our network,” said Lusso. “We try to never waste a crisis – we see opportunities. If things go well we’re going to have a good problem, which is more opportunities than planes to fly.”
He believes business traffic will return, albeit at a slower pace than leisure traffic. “Fares are going to be very important in the recovery. I think incentives will be more about sharing the financial risk of starting up a new operation. In the long-term, we will get back close to what the travel environment was before. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge systemic shift in behaviour, but we’re all going to learn lessons along the way – flexibility and nimbleness are key for us.”
San Antonio International Airport responded to the crisis by instituting a COVID Task Force, which helped it look forward and establish “a winning formula” as it navigates the pandemic. “This talks about what we’re doing to rebound and, more importantly, how we’re reimagining the overall look of the airport to ensure that we rebuild that consumer confidence with the passengers,” said Jesus Saenz, Director of Airports, San Antonio International Airport.
The implementation of new protocols and processes has involved close collaboration with all stakeholders. “On the financial side, we’re focusing on the amount of liquidity that we have and doing all we can to reduce costs to help the airlines as they get through this situation as well. So, it’s a true team effort.”
A number of North American airports, including San Antonio, are looking to provide COVID-19 testing within the airport. “A recent regulatory framework was established with the Federal Aviation Administration,” Saenz explained. “So, we look at these testing opportunities, coupled with potential vaccines and how quickly they can be deployed, so we can get back to the ‘new normal’. It’s about coordinating these efforts together with the entire sector, so that ultimately we rebuild consumer confidence.”
San Antonio International Airport is focused on showing its ability to be agile. “As I look at some of the modelling forecasts we have prepared, certainly we have a reduction in the number of destinations,” said Saenz. “But we’re still having constant conversations with the airlines about different, new opportunities that may not have been served previously. There may be new markets that surface.”
San Antonio is a top leisure market in the state of Texas and the airport is focusing on that as it redirects some of its marketing efforts. “There is pent up demand and we want to ensure we communicate that with the airlines. People want to be in front each other. Whether it’s leisure or business, people are ready to get back into their normal ways.”
Swoop, which is part of the WestJet Group, responded to the pandemic by focusing on significant cost reduction, reducing capacity, preserving cash, and having a stable schedule.
“We’re now actively looking forward to planning 2021,” said Bert van der Stege, Head of Commercial & Finance, Swoop. “We believe here in Canada we’re going to have a few more really difficult months, anticipating the recovery to start in Q2 and then being back at pre-COVID levels in Q3. The peak summer is traditionally a very important period for airlines here in Canada.”
He explained that Swoop’s number one priority is working with the Canadian Government and its airport partners to introduce COVID-19 testing to try to reduce the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for arriving travellers. “Then we believe pre-departure testing will help add an extra layer of comfort for travellers,” van der Stege added. “We hope to introduce that at our largest airports – Edmonton and Toronto, in particular.”
For Swoop, exceptional circumstances have required exceptional creativity, with a focus on innovation and flexibility. “We believe one of the keys to the recovery of air transportation is to keep taxes, airport and other service fees as low as possible – an increase will be detrimental to demand and recovery,” said van der Stege. “The answer simply cannot be making air travel more expensive – that is not going to lead to a recovery for the airlines and airports in 2021.”
Swoop recently moved most of its Ontario operation from the secondary airport of Hamilton to the primary airport of Toronto Pearson. “We see the opportunity to expand in some of the so-called Tier 1 airports here in Canada. Toronto Pearson is Canada’s largest airport and, with our ability to offer ultra-low fares and point-to-point services, we feel there is an opportunity there for us with pent up demand, so this is the time for us to invest and get ready for 2021. This is an expansion for us, in addition to maintaining a very strong presence in Hamilton.”