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In yet another sign of the convergence of airline models once known as "low cost" and "legacy," JetBlue Airways is launching a meetings program through its CompanyBlue system that is "designed exclusively for corporate meeting planners."
Further details on the meetings program will emerge soon, an official said. The information quickly follows CEO David Neeleman's March 20 statements at an Association of Corporate Travel Executives event indicating that JetBlue was investigating refundable fares and guaranteed aisle or window seats for travelers willing to pay more.
Neeleman also suggested the airline would be more flexible on volume discounts. "I've never been a rule guy that much, and if someone says they 'have 100 people a day going here. You give me this fare and you get them all,' I say, all right, let's take a look at it," he said. "I think we should be flexible."
A company spokesperson subsequently clarified the statements, hinting that the group offering may have been Neelman's focus.
"As David Neeleman commented last week, we will not rule anything out when it comes to negotiating corporate fares," the official wrote by email. "In specific cases, including group travel and our new CompanyBlue Meetings program ... we do generate a customized fare quote." However, "we are not actively pursuing creating a corporate discount program," according to the spokesperson.
The meetings program and other new initiatives were underway before JetBlue's recent operational troubles, officials said. JetBlue convened its first-ever corporate travel advisory board in November, and comments by clients pushed it to begin tests in the CompanyBlue booking tool of "options this year to book refundable fares and to guarantee an aisle or window seat for business travelers."
Like other point-to-point carriers, JetBlue has traditionally employed what Neeleman called an "egalitarian approach" in which travelers take seats on a first buy, first serve basis. The new program means that travelers who pay higher fares, often at the last minute, are assigned a seat in the front of the plane where JetBlue's seat pitch can be as much as six inches deeper than in the back, Neeleman said. Such travelers would also be more likely to be placed next to an empty seat.
Picking one's own seat when boarding the plane "doesn't really help corporate travel all that much," said Neeleman, adding that "it will take a little more technology, but if there's an empty seat, we want it next to the person who paid the most. It all came about when I was talking with someone who said they were booking the day before and [said] it would have been nice to fly JetBlue, but when you book the day before, you get the middle seat. So he would give $600 to United instead of $399 to us. I want that $399 and we're spending a lot of time thinking about how to do that."
Neeleman also said JetBlue is testing refundable fares "with a couple of corporations. It's amazing how much more people will pay. To us, and there's an accounting issue that goes with it, 'refundability' is transferable." Though higher priced, such a transferable fare would remain valid for a year and come with no change fee.
JetBlue last year rejoined U.S.-based global distribution systems, pleasing travel managers who aim to consolidate bookings through a centralized system and track data for the purposes of locating travelers and negotiating with suppliers.
Other North American carriers that in their earlier stages did not fully participate in GDSs or offer corporate discounting also have recently begun to do more of both. But while AirTran quietlyand WestJet more openlydo deals with big corporations, model-changing is not underway at all point-to-point specialists.
Business travelers have long clamored for seat assignments on Southwest Airlines, but management there has done no more than think about it--partly because of the boarding efficiency of "first come, first served." Meanwhile, Southwest officials say it does not engage in corporate discount programs, instead collaborating with corporations on the use of its low-cost, Web-based distribution system, Swabiz.
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