Breeze Airways Stakes Out Premium ULCC Niche With A220-300s
Ultra-low-cost carriers have gained dominance in recent years by capitalizing on rock-bottom fares to attract price-sensitive leisure travelers. But in the process, they have garnered a reputation for cramped cabins and poor customer service.
Enter Breeze Airways, the new U.S.-based startup led by JetBlue Airways and Azul founder David Neeleman. The Utah-based airline is looking to turn the ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) model on its head by offering a premium product that rivals the legacy carriers at a fraction of the price.
- Breeze will take delivery of one new A220 per month for the next six years
- New aircraft feature 36 premium, 10 extra legroom seats
- Airbus still upbeat on A220-500 prospects
To do so, the company plans to take advantage of the spacious cabin of the Airbus A220-300, of which Breeze has 80 on firm order, making it the largest customer for the type. The airline plans to take delivery of one new aircraft per month over the next six years.
Executives from Breeze and Airbus unveiled the carrier’s first A220-300 during a ceremony at the OEM’s final assembly line in Mobile, Alabama on Oct. 26.
“The A220-300 is a game changer for us as we add long-haul flights that can average 5 hr., including transcontinental service,” Neeleman says. “By the end of 2022, Breeze will have 15 A220s, in addition to at least 18 Embraer 190 and 195 jets. This aircraft is the perfect addition to our fast-growing airline as we seek to bring our service to more communities across the U.S. and beyond.”
As a ULCC, Breeze likes to tout its low-cost structure and fares—combined with its “kind” customer service and onboard amenities—which it says will help stimulate demand on underserved city pairs between secondary airports in smaller and midsize cities. The airline currently serves 16 secondary airports around the U.S. from four bases: Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; Norfolk, Virginia; and Tampa, Florida.
But unlike other ULCCs, Breeze is not planning to achieve low costs by cramming as many passengers as possible into its aircraft. On the contrary, its newly revealed A220-300 cabin configuration features 126 seats spread across three cabin sections; premium, extra-legroom and economy.
The 36-seat premium cabin, which occupies the entire space ahead of the emergency exits, will be laid out in a 2X2 configuration with 39 in. of seat pitch. A further 10 seats, dubbed “extra-legroom” and configured in a 2X3 layout, come with 33 in. of pitch. The remainder of the cabin is economy seating, but with 30 in. of seat pitch it is still quite roomy compared to many other ULCCs.
The company is also providing in-seat power AC and USB ports for all seats, including economy. Wi-Fi will not be available in time for launch this year, but Neeleman says Breeze is in talks with vendors about plans to eventually add Wi-Fi across its A220 fleet. The cabin also features full-color LED ambient mood lighting, which the carrier says will help passengers rest and reduce fatigue at the destination.
But will Breeze be able to stimulate enough premium demand to sell 36 premium seats on each A220 flight—particularly between secondary markets that did not previously have direct service? Neeleman believes the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
“We are not going to do what legacy airlines do by charging three times the cost of our economy fares for business-class customers,” Neeleman told reporters at the A220 unveiling ceremony in Mobile. “We want anybody to be able to upgrade from coach to premium for an extra $50, which we think is a compelling offer. If the $50 price point doesn’t work, we can always lower it to $25. Nothing is set in concrete.”
While Breeze will continue to operate its fleet of leased Embraer 190/195 aircraft as it takes delivery of the A220s, Neeleman insisted the company will not be a “two-tiered” airline. Rather, he said the two fleet types will focus on flying separate missions, with the E-Jets deployed on short routes of up to 2 hr. and the A220s on longer routes.
“Because the travel costs are so low on the E-Jets, we can afford to just fly them on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, Mondays and a bit on Saturdays, so that we can use them for charters on the other days of the week,” Neeleman said. “We would never be doing what we’re doing today if we only had the A220s.”
Breeze is not stopping at premium seating, either. Longer term, Neeleman says the carrier could potentially pursue lie-flat seats in the front of the cabin, which he says would serve as a useful selling point should Breeze decide to launch longer-haul routes to Latin America. He added that as many as 20 lie-flats could be inserted in place of the 36 premium seats at some point in the future. But first, Neeleman says he would like to see Airbus and Pratt & Whitney work to enhance the range of the A220 closer to 4,000 nm from around 3,800 nm today.
“Our ability to do stuff from Florida to Brazil is greatly enhanced if we can add that capability,” Neeleman says. “Airbus is already doing work on the [ACJ TwoTwenty] to increase its range, and we’re in active discussions about carrying that work over to the A220s.”
The unveiling ceremony occurred as Airbus is attempting to raise A220 production rates at its Mobile line to two aircraft per month from one, which Airbus Americas CEO Jeff Knittel says will grow to 4-5 aircraft per month by mid-decade. Airbus’ Mirabel, Quebec, final assembly line, meanwhile, is also currently raising output from four to five aircraft , Knittel says. Besides Breeze, other airlines in North America that have purchased the A220 are Air Canada (45), Delta Air Lines (90) and JetBlue Airways (70).
Of the 466 A220s in Airbus’ backlog, just 40 of them are the smaller A220-100, all of which belong to Delta. Asked about the future viability of the A220-100 given the dearth of orders, Knittel said he believes the -100 will still have a place in the aircraft market 10 years from now, particularly within fleets of operators that want to “go into smaller, high-performance markets.” Still, he acknowledged that the superior seat-mile costs of the -300 means the bias in favor of the larger variant will persist into the future.
Knittel also says there is “still a clear path” for Airbus to get to a larger A220-500, although maturing the production process for the existing A220 program remains the company’s main priority.
“There’s a lot of interest, but our focus right now is on the -100 and -300, maturing the product in service, ramping up the program, and doing cost reductions to make the program more profitable,” Knittel adds. “But once we achieve all that, then it could be the right time to focus on a -500.”