There’s nothing magical about economy-class air travel. But with JetBlue’s snazzy new gray, orange and, of course, blue redesign of the interiors of its workhorse Airbus A320 planes—the carrier’s first of said aircraft in almost 20 years—the airline has managed to pull off a pretty neat trick.
Despite increasing the number of passengers who can fit onboard to 162 from 150, the redesigned planes have wider seats than they did before (18.4 inches versus 17.8 inches). And the company still maintains its claim to the greatest legroom in coach, based on average seat pitch, among domestic airlines. In some ways, that’s a low bar, since most U.S. airlines provide a squished 30 or 31 inches, and low-cost carriers may give you an expletive-inducing 28 inches.
As it happens, the redesigned A320’s 32 inches is actually two inches less than it was before. But after getting a tour of the refit planes from JetBlue top brass at Logan Airport in Boston earlier this month, I’m here to tell you that pitch numbers notwithstanding, this is one roomy—and, thanks to mood lighting, pretty groovy—aircraft.
So how’d they do it? How do you add two more rows of seats and still make all 6’ 3” of me feel like I’ve got knee space to spare, even when I’m in standard economy?
According to JetBlue’s head of product development, Mariya Stoyanova, it all comes down to smart seat design, specifically seat shape. The A320’s new next-generation seats are slimmer, which means you can fit more of them on a plane without crowding, and they exploit the curvature of the aircraft’s sides to maximize width. A super-skinny and simple armrest also provides you with more side-to-side leeway. (If I have any quibble with these seats, it’s that these armrests don’t offer much in the way of softness, and there’s zero chance they could be shared, even if you’re flying next to your significant other, let alone a stranger.)
Slim seats only get you so far, however. JetBlue worked with the manufacturer to carve out the bulk from seatbacks right where they usually hit the legs of the person behind you. It worked: Even when the guy in front of me reclined, I was in the clear, although my laptop on the tray table still got a bit jostled.
When it comes to seat customization, Stoyanova says JetBlue can be demanding. The brand’s collaboration with the seat maker here enhanced comfort beyond the increased sense of space. JetBlue wanted more memory foam added to the leather cushions, whose curves in multiple directions ergonomically embrace you the way the driver’s seat of a great German car does.
There are also new adjustable headrests designed to be functional and usable, says Stoyanova. And they are. They go up—way up—and stay up, and the side flaps firmly adjust to cradle your head.
The other major onboard innovations focus on in-flight entertainment. That’s something else in which JetBlue, with its seatback screens, live DirectTV, and free Wi-Fi, has long been a leader. Now, it’s upping the ante further.
To that end, the refit planes offer more on-demand movie selections—100-plus channels of live Direct TV, almost triple the 36 that were were previously available, with new DVR-style pause, rewind, and fast-forward functions. There are also USB and traditional power plugs in front of each seat, versus underneath, which required what Stoyanova refers to as all sorts of “yoga poses” to reach. And, most important, these planes have free, fast gate-to-gate Wi-Fi on almost every route they fly. Up until 2017, JetBlue offered free Wi-Fi only at cruising altitude (similar to what most other airlines offer) and since then has offered gate-to-gate Wi-Fi on all but Caribbean and Latin American flights. Those flights are now fully connected as well.
As for those seatback screens, they’re now 10.1 inches compared to the six inches they used to be, and you can wirelessly pair your phone with them to use as a remote control. This was cool—though, honestly, it’s not like it takes all that much extra effort to reach forward and touch the screen to operate the system.
By the end of the year, a third of JetBlue’s A320s will have been retrofit, with the vast majority done by the end of 2020. The catch right now is that there’s no easy way to tell when you’re booking if you’ll be on one of the renovated planes or not, which is too bad. (Look at a flight’s seat map; if there are 27 rows instead of 25, it’s a refit plane.) Sure, we’re still more likely to make a decision based on a flight’s cost and time, but the refit planes represent enough of an improvement that, if there were a simple way to know that I would be flying on one, I would be very willing to pay a bit more or wake up a bit earlier—or both—to get on board.