JetBlue’s inaugural New York to London flight touched down at the UK capital’s Heathrow Airport on Thursday morning, providing a symbolic boost to hopes for opening up scheduled transatlantic services that continue to be blighted by the Covid pandemic. The U.S. carrier has been preparing to launch the service using its Airbus A321LR narrowbodies for several months and was only able to press ahead with the launch after the British government lifted quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers from the U.S. on August 2.
Having launched daily nonstop service between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Heathrow, JetBlue plans to offer flights to London Gatwick Airport as well from September 29. Plans also call for nonstop service to London from Boston.
On August 9, FAA granted JetBlue the required extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS) clearance for the transatlantic sector. The A321LR (Long Range) aircraft’s cabin is fitted with 114 standard seats and 24 of the airline’s premium-service Mint “suites,” which include lie-flat seats and a sliding door.
In April, Airbus delivered the first of 13 A321LRs to JetBlue, and these feature the new “Airspace” cabin interiors designed to provide greater comfort for long-haul trips. The A321LR is certified to fly up to 4,000 nm, making it suitable for transatlantic routes at a time when levels of demand don’t readily support the deployment of widebody airliners. JetBlue has converted another 13 of the A321 orders it holds to the new Extra-Long-Range version.
To extend the A321’s range, Airbus added three center fuel tanks to the airframe. “As we come out of the pandemic and the international market recovers, the A321LR will position JetBlue to offer long-haul international travel at the highest level of customer service and at the lowest cost and risk,” said Airbus Americas chairman and CEO Jeffrey Knittel.
JetBlue pressed ahead with the launch of its Heathrow service despite the fact that British travelers are still barred from the U.S. due to Covid restrictions. The UK government had hoped that its unilateral move to suspend quarantine requirements for visitors from the U.S. would be reciprocated but the Biden Administration made it clear it will stick with existing restrictions.
More generally, UK travelers have been discouraged by concerns over getting caught out by rapidly changing Covid restrictions, with the government accused of inconsistent and unexplained rule changes at short notice. Complaints are also increasing over allegedly inflated costs for required Covid tests for trips and reports that some UK companies providing these services have lost or failed to process tests in a timely way.
Nonetheless, in July Heathrow Airport recorded its highest monthly passenger figures since the start of the Covid pandemic, with around 1.5 million passengers passing through the hub. This marked a 74 percent increase over July 2020, but was still more than 80 percent below July 2019 levels.