JetBlue’s New First-Class Mint Service Reviewed

A LuxuryBear’s Point of View

I fly a lot for work and fun, and luckily most of it in premium cabins. I truly love to fly, and always like to try new airline offerings, aircraft and landside services. So when Jetblue (IATA code B6) announced their new premium transcon product, Mint, I had to jump at the chance — and I bought a suites first class one way ticket from LAX-JFK on day 2 of service (June 16, 2014). Here’s the report, and throughout I will compare it to United/American’s premium transcon service.

Ground Handling

Chaotic Boarding of B6324 at LAX Terminal 3

Boarding on the ground at LAX was chaotic. Terminal 3 is a run-down disaster, and the gate area was filled with people clamoring to get on. I think B6's normal boarding procedure is pretty haphazard (and the crowd not the most seasoned of travelers), so there was little respect for the boarding process. Definitely nothing premium about this experience, though when they did call for Mint to board first, they were diligent about sending back anyone who tried to board without being up front. One of my pet peeves is airlines that make a big deal about boarding priority but don’t enforce it gate-side — why have all the drama if you’re not going to see it through.

Obviously JetBlue doesn’t have any lounges, and this also detracts a bit from the premium experience. Given their longstanding relationship with Amex, and the latter’s desire to open a network of branded lounges, perhaps B6 transcon terminals would be a good place to do this?

Overall, I’d give JetBlue a -2 for the ground handling compared to the competition.

Boarding

Welcome to Mint — Greetings from Sherry & Jeff

Once onboard, I made my way to my seat, only to find the lovely welcome package on my seat. I love a hand-written note from the in-flight crew, and Sherry & Jeff’s personal touch (and excellent service) was really appreciated. The crew quickly introduced themselves personally, welcoming me warmly and offered one of their signature cocktails (a kind of mojito) with or without vodka. I demurred, but others around me seemed not to love them — I heard some complaints about it being too tart.

Although this new A321 has 2 boarding-capable doors, the company uses the L1 (first) door. This means that everyone walks through first/business, which is good for marketing, but terrible for the FA’s ability to provide pre-departure service, though Sherry/Jeff did a great job of navigating the flow of folks.

This entirely new service offering also happens to coincide with the arrival of the A321s as a new fleet type for JetBlue, so some teething issues were to be expected. The flight was late to board and a bit late to depart. The crew didn’t really apologize for the delay, but I think everyone’s excitement overrode their concerns about this.

I’d give Jetblue a +1 here — the warm, friendly and gracious welcome aboard is definitely above and beyond what we see on most transcons today.

It was a quick pushback and super fast taxi to the runway and we were off on a beautiful California day. No turns to ocean.

No turns to ocean for B6324 departing

Seat

Jetblue has gone with a very unique configuration for its A321s in the Mint cabin — there are 3 rows of 2x2 lay-flat seats with a row of 1x1 lay-flat “suites” in the rows between them. This is a clever design that uses the same principles as the staggered aisle-access seats favored by Delta, ANA and others where the footwells of the pax behind you are inside your armrests. The suites are normally available for $100 more than the regular seats, and — as in our case — will go quickly (they were all taken for weeks before the flight). I took a suite so that I could have some privacy after a long week running my conference, and I wanted to enjoy the door.

The single suite in a 2x2, 1x1 layout

The suites are narrow overall, a weakness that seems unnecessary given the layout of the cabin. As with many new A321 installs, there is a substantial (6"+) gap between the suite edge and the aircraft interior wall, which makes no sense to me…why not use that space to give us more shoulder room. Although comfortable, the suite makes little accommodation for the extra width of shoulders, and it felt a bit tight to me both in sitting and sleeping position though with ample legroom.

Great legroom aboard

The seat also has an air cushioning system that made the seat feel a bit unstable, but was easily adjusted. The massage functions were nice and the lumbar support was excellent. However, the “relax” position for the seat (meant for reading or watching the screen I guess) was decidedly uncomfortable — and because the seat lacked specific angle adjustments, you can’t really configure the backrest to your ideal position for watching.

Suite controls don’t give you total power

Lights, air vents (yay!) and storage were thoughtfully laid out with plenty of room put everything you might want — and lots of work surfaces. There’s even a “hidden” storage door in the suite that can easily accommodate a small carry-on, though the FAs were kind enough to offer to retrieve an item from the overhead right after take-off, a nice service touchpoint that they did for everyone.

The suite’s closing door was latched open by the flight attendants for takeoff and landing, but could easily be closed after departure and adds a nice feel of privacy. One weird detail about the B6 cabin is that the backs of the suites are lower than in most contemporary cabins, and they’ve added a ribbon of plexiglass between rows as a separation detail. However, as you’d expect, plexi looks really terrible, really quickly (it was already deeply scratched on day 2 of operations), and it allows for incredible noise bleed — I could readily hear the conversations of all my seat companions.

Closing the door gives you some extra privacy

The other big win in the suite is the power — the company has 2 (two!) power outlets in the suite, each with a standard plug and USB adapter. That’s plenty of juice for all your devices, even if you forget a charger. Nice move, B6!

Lots of juice

Overall, I’d give the seat a neutral rating relative to the competition. It’s fine — not amazing — but fine — and definitely a comfortable ride. They didn’t go with the diamond seat, so the storage is better, but the comfort is slightly worse.

Entertainment

JetBlue is famous for its DirectTV offering, and this new aircraft comes with a more sophisticated IFE from DirectTV. There are all the usual channels of television (I watch a lot of cooking shows on TV-equipped flights), a selection menu of audio channels and on-demand films which are free in Mint class. Additionally, the company will soon be launching Air Traffic Control (ATC) channel onboard to compete with United’s Channel 9 which is a major boon to super nerds like me.

However, the IFE was clunky and the interface feels like it’s 1987. The system is controlled by a remote cleverly hidden in the armrest that uses a ton of real estate for very few control surfaces. The menus are confusing, and I spent a surprising amount of time trying to move around the system which was — shockingly — not touch-controllable. Do they even make IFE these days that can’t be controlled by touch? But the real loss here is the size of the monitor which appears to be around 11-12", much much smaller than the competition and definitely underwhelming. It’s also not HD quality, which could have easily been resolved.

On the flip side, B6 internet (Fly-Fi) was super fast. Based on the latest satellite technology, the company is rolling this product out around the fleet. When you launch, you have the option of choosing the (now) free version or an upgraded version for $9 that promises to let you do broadband-quality streaming video and audio. Overall, I thought the wifi was the best I’ve experienced in a while, and I wasn’t chuffed that I couldn’t use my gogo login.

Here I’d give JetBlue a +1 over its competition, though I’m saddened by the small, low-quality screen and bad headphones, the great wifi and plenty of power made it very competitive.

Amenities

Each Mint seat arrives with eyeshades and earplugs, and a large, soft comforter and pillow in plastic and a bottled water already waiting for you on arrival. Your (kinda bad) headphones are also there, ready for you to plug in and get lost in the entertainment system. Because of the ample storage lockers, pockets and sidewalls, you can easily store all that stuff — a frustration I have with airlines like United that give you amenities but nowhere to put them (and frequently chide you for having them on the ground).

The new Mint headphones were awkward and not very good.

After the meal service, flight attendants come through with the Birchbox-sponsored amenity kit containing a sample of lotions, soaps and creams from some interesting/famous brands. Birchbox is a monthly subscription service that sends you cool stuff in the mail, and their partnership with B6 here is pretty clever. You can even find a BirchBox pop-up in the terminal. Though I’m excited to try all the stuff I got — and the quality is really cool — the amenity kit isn’t “real”, in that it’s missing some essential items like a toothbrush, slippers, etc. A little more effort here would be useful, and I recommend distributing the kit sooner so folks can use the lotions if needed earlier in the flight.

The birchbox amenity kit was super nice and interesting, though it lacked a toothbrush, etc.

One of the new amenities aboard this aircraft is the pantry — a self-service area across from Door 2 that has snacks, drinks, etc. for any passenger to take. JetBlue should consider putting up a curtain between Mint and economy there to minimize sound and disruption for folks in the last row of Mint, but this is a minor inconvenience. I never had to use the pantry as service was excellent and the team was always there if we needed anything.

Overall, I think B6's approach to amenities in Mint is the best of its class today — +2 for them!


Food

The Mint menu is extensive and uses an interesting tapas concept where you pick three items from the mains and they bring them to you. I liked the sound of the menu, though tapas always stresses me out as I think there won’t be enough food. In this case, I needn’t have worried, as portions were generous, though I found the “pick three” posture of the menu and the staff to be a bit off-putting — it feels like a Chinese buffet. I’d suggest a softer line in the premium cabin of “we recommend you choose three, but feel free to order whatever you want” as a way of seeming higher class; most people won’t be able to finish three anyway.

The lovely and interesting menu
A lovely beverage selection
The carrot amuse bouche was delicious

The food itself, designed in partnership with Saxon+Parole was interesting, but mostly a letdown. I ordered the mushroom mousse, gnocchi and fish, and each one had a fatal flaw that made me not finish any of it (too sweet, not warm enough, too dry, in that order). The bread was also awful and lends some credence to the idea that the bread is the barometer of whether the meal will be good or terrible. The major highlight of the service was the amuse bouche (a yummy chilled soup) and the dessert: fruit *and* ice-cream (not to mention the MahZeDar brownies we got as a parting gift). I wish more airlines would recognize those of us with a sweet tooth and give us double (triple!) dessert.

The meal was interesting but mostly not very good — and the bread was terrible

But I applaud them for making an effort to create something so diverse and clever, and with more time and testing they should be able to perfect this menu. Along with an extensive wine/drink offering (yay for lots of tea options, boo for Dunkin Donuts coffee), the menu read like a smart premium service should. A traditional B6 snack basket was also passed around by the FA’s about an hour before landing, and we were offered more water and beverages at regular intervals.

Dessert was definitely the highlight of the whole meal, and I really appreciated the double dessert.

A couple of other nits: I asked the awesome FAs if I could order in tranches — perhaps just trying one item now and maybe some more later, but that wasn’t possible. Moreover, the airline puts down a paper “doily” under the meal tray, and the silverware is presented in what can only be described as “picnic” fashion, with paper napkins. I don’t understand why they can’t use linen — a simple, environmental choice that goes a long way to creating a better cabin ambiance. After all, they had a piece of china for my tea bag, I’m sure catering linens can’t be that hard.

I’d say once they iron out the kinks, there’s a good chance B6 could vault ahead in the food/beverage department here. For now, it’s a +1 for Mint.

Service

This is where JetBlue really shines in the transcon market — and the excitement and warmth of the team was evident from the minute we came onboard. Both FAs took a moment to introduce themselves personally, give me a rundown of the Mint offering, and to offer me a pre-departure drink. They genuinely seemed into what they were doing, and despite the complexity of running a brand new kind of service (B6 has never had first class before) on a brand new plane, the team knew what they were doing and were happy to do it.

A teething moment at the intersection of the “classic” JetBlue and the new Mint offering occurred right when I first sat down in my seat — the cupholder area had clearly not be cleaned from the last guest, which is pretty normal if you’ve ever flown JetBlue around elsewhere (yes, I’m saying their planes are dirty). I pointed it out to Jeff and he went away to get a cleaning cloth, apologizing profusely. Later in the flight, Sherry came by to apologize again — which was excessive, but appreciated. And she seemed genuinely interested as well when I gave her detailed feedback on the food.

Nothing makes or breaks a flight experience more than the energy of the team, and in this case the JetBlue folks really shone. Now it’s early days, and I’m sure this assignment is considered an honor among the FA base, so things may change — but if the company can pair its signature positive attitude with a premium offering, it’s got a service winner on its hands. If there was any nit, it was the way meal services were handled (also the first time I was addressed by name — a nice touch), but that’s relatively minor and could be easily fixed with a more flexible attitude towards dining.

For the great service, and genuine warmth/enthusiasm — a +2 for JetBlue.


Conclusion/Value

The sunset over the midwest from seat 4A

As we made our way in extraordinary comfort through a warm midwestern sunset and an early arrival into JFK, I had time to think about the experience. Overall, I thought the Mint offering was very competitive, though there were some rough spots. These scores are relative to their competition in UA/AA premium cabins:

Ground Handling -2 (no lounges, crazy boarding)
Boarding +1 (warm greeting)
Seat +0 (narrow, awkward rest, but still comfortable)
Entertainment +1 (small monitor, limited options, fast wifi)
Amenities +2 (pillow/blankets, birchbox)
Food +1 (clever but not great food, lots of options)
Service +2 (warm, knowledgeable staff)
Overall: +5 compared to UA/AA, and better in 5/8 categories.

This is already a great showing by JetBlue for a new service, but the real strength of this offering is its value. Today, one way fares in Mint are $500-$600 from JFK-LAX, a fraction of what UA/AA/DL/VX charge on the route (usually $1400-1500 each way at minimum). For 50-75% less, JetBlue offers something that is better in many categories and excellent overall.

The comfy mint pillows and blankets are branded in the signature green

In my estimation, their offering clearly leapfrogs both Virgin and Delta, while taking a big swing at UA/AA’s bread & butter transcon business. Because of their relatively weak frequent flier program and lower frequencies (today), I don’t expect B6 to take much of the hardcore, frequent-flyer crowd away from AA/UA, but for small business owners, and folks that pay for their own travel this should be a major boon. Another big win for B6 would be to bring this product to Boston, a hub of theirs with low-quality transcon offerings from the majors, but where there’s a sizable chunk of rich folks willing to pay.

Either way, this competition is great for the market, and I’m sure I’ll be aboard again really soon — especially once they launch service to SFO. Well done, JetBlue — and congrats on a great new rollout.

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