Robin Hayes is coming to London from the US – and he’s bringing his $8billion low-cost airline with him.
The chief executive of America’s sixth largest carrier, JetBlue – currently being violently buffeted along with rivals by the impact of the coronavirus crisis – already has a production line of Airbus 321LR aircraft fired up and is primed to begin flights across the Atlantic.
The only thing he needs to crack open the market – and slash fares, he’s keen to point out – is a green light for massive expansion at Heathrow Airport.
‘We’re on track to start flying to London in 2021,’ he says of the plan, which will be the first major US competitor to hit the transatlantic market for years.
Robin Hayes, chief executive officer of JetBlue Airways, still wants to move the business to the UK and radically decrease the cost of Business Class travel
‘We actually see a path to flying to more than one London airport. But for us to have the truly disruptive effect on pricing we’d need Heathrow to be part of that.
I don’t think Heathrow will be the only airport we fly to, but my view is that if we can’t get into Heathrow we won’t have the same ability to lower fares.’
It sounds straightforward – had the plan not become mired in legal issues and political wrangling.
Hayes is on the line from his office in New York amid one of the biggest shocks to the industry for decades. Airline bookings across the industry slumped last week sending airline stocks plummeting.
Shares in British Airways owner IAG fell 18.8 per cent to £3.50 by the market close on Friday. US President Donald Trump has banned flights from Europe and Hayes says passengers on internal flights are cancelling or claiming for delays.
‘We’ve seen a very significant short-term impact with the coronavirus. This will be a challenge to the airline industry around the world,’ he says.
But he insists his London plans will not be knocked off course.
‘JetBlue has an extremely strong balance sheet. We’ve got one of the strongest balance sheets in the United States so we’ve been preparing for this for a long time. You never quite know when something like this is going to hit you.’
Hayes is a North London native, Arsenal Football Club fan and former British Airways executive. He describes JetBlue as a ‘disruptor’ that will have a ‘devastating effect’ on ‘obscene’ high fares in and out of Heathrow.
The US budget airline is the first to enter the transatlantic market in years
‘It’s a high fare fortress,’ says Hayes, pulling no punches.
‘The phrase I like to use is that when legacy airlines compete with each other, what they really compete to do is to see who can charge the highest fare.’
He says multi-airline partnerships – called codeshare agreements – make it appear that many airlines are flying from the airport. But open contracts between tightly knit groups mean information sharing on seats, schedules and prices stifles competition and artificially keeps fares high.
‘They co-ordinate, they set high fares and they suffocate the market,’ he says.
‘Everyone thinks there are about 12 airlines that fly between Heathrow and the US. But the problem is really there are about three mega-airlines that operate in joint ventures.’
In his sights are the transatlantic partnerships that include British Airways and American Airlines; another operated by Virgin Atlantic and US giant Delta Airlines; and a group under United Airlines, Lufthansa and Air Canada.
He says he is restricted from revealing his price plans. But he points to the launch of JetBlue’s Mint $599 business class seats from New York to Los Angeles which he says presaged a drop in premium prices previously running as high as ‘$2,000 or $3,000’.
Few disagree that Heathrow is now so near capacity limits that it is bursting at the seams.
But the furore over a third runway, a project the airport’s owner and the string of construction giants have described as ‘shovel ready’, could hamstring his ambitions to force down prices.
The debacle reached a peak last month when two competing third runway projects were blocked by the courts on environmental grounds.
The practical effect of the decision has been to block the entry of serious newcomers.
Heathrow is taking the decision to the Supreme Court.
Hayes says: ‘Aviation is one of the most important conduits of global trade. London airports need to continue to expand and be open to competition – you’ve got to have an airport that offers low fares. You’ve got to have a hub airport. If you don’t you are going to stifle global trade. You are going to make flying much less affordable for many working families. With Britain leaving the EU, the world is watching that Britain is making the right decisions and remains open for business.
‘I think we’re all excited about the potential for a US-UK trade deal. It’s something the government in the US talks about frequently as a priority.’
JetBlue’s plan will extend to the rest of the UK ‘probably [in] 2022 or beyond’, he says. ‘Whilst we want to start in London, we are very interested in flights to the rest of the UK.
‘We see an opportunity of flights from New York and Boston to the North of England, we see an opportunity for flights to Scotland.’
He says the carrier has 26 aeroplanes on order that can fly to Europe, and the first six of those will go to London.
What about climate change concerns that have prompted some to say that airlines and air travel will have to play a smaller role in business and family life in future?
Hayes doesn’t shy away from the subject: in fact, he says it is vital that airports and airlines – which account for around 2.5 per cent of global emissions – grow sustainably. JetBlue, for its part, has made commitments to offset carbon emissions, engine technology and more efficient fuel.
‘Look, I understand the concerns around the environment,’ Hayes says. ‘JetBlue announced earlier this year we would become the first US carbon neutral airline [on domestic flights]. We understand the issue. What we have to do is find a way for the industry to demonstrate its commitment to lowering its carbon emissions but, at the same time, allowing people the benefit of aviation.
‘You know, my generation, the generation before us, had the ability to fly around the world and see it. Our kids and their kids want to have the same opportunity.’
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