More than 13 years after a brief and bruising experience with the Atlanta market, JetBlue Airways is returning to Hartsfield-Jackson International to make another run at carving out a presence at the world’s busiest airport.
JetBlue launches service Thursday with one route — Atlanta-Boston with five flights a day.
“This is by far our most requested route,” said Dave Clark, JetBlue’s vice president of sales and revenue management.
It also plans to add flights from Atlanta to New York’s John F. Kennedy International, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale at some point if it can get more gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson.
The last time JetBlue attempted a foray into Atlanta — in 2003, with flights to the west coast — Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways fought back hard by waging a turf war with more flights and cut-rate fares. JetBlue withdrew after just six months, with an executive saying at the time the market was “a little crazy.”
But Clark said “The JetBlue of today is very different from the JetBlue of  that served Atlanta before,” including being more financially secure.
Pricing is now more stable, while JetBlue, founded in 1999, has grown significantly and become more of a household name, said Rob Britton, principal of Washington, D.C. -based consulting firm AirLearn.
“They’re a much bigger company, and so they’ve got a footprint,” Britton said. “They have a brand that is well regarded, it’s kind of a young brand, if you will, and they will leverage those advantages.”
The competitive landscape has also changed, both at Hartsfield-Jackson and nationally. AirTran, the plucky underdog to Delta in Atlanta, has been absorbed by Southwest Airlines.
The industry has condensed after a series of mergers to four mega-players — Delta, American, United and Southwest — and a few smaller players including JetBlue.
A low-cost carrier that also aims to distinguish itself with some extra perks, New York-based JetBlue offers things like free unlimited snacks such as Cheez-Its, Craisins and Terra gourmet potato chips, along with free wi-fi.
It also sells upgrades to seats with extra legroom.
JetBlue says it has already driven down fares on the Atlanta-Boston route.
“Atlanta suffers from high airfares,” Clark said. On the Atlanta-Boston route, “the whole fare structure has come down because of competition.”
Shades of blue
JetBlue has three tiers of fares: Blue, Blue Plus and Blue Flex, offering anywhere from 0 to 2 free checked bags. Blue Flex is a flexible fare class that includes expedited security screening.
The airline also has an upscale class of seats called Mint on certain transcontinental and Caribbean routes. Mint service includes lie-flat seats with a massage feature and “artisanal dining.” Four of the Mint seats at the front of the plane are in suites with a door.
“I think [JetBlue] would like to present themselves as kind of higher quality, lower cost. In a business that tends toward commodity, the ability of someone to differentiate themselves in a sustainable fashion is really pretty hard,” Britton said.
“They’re going to come, they’ll probably create some buzz. People will fly them and say, ‘You know, gee, that felt a lot like Delta.”
For the Atlanta-Boston route, JetBlue plans to use Airbus A320 jets with 150-seats, which don’t have Mint service.
But in a push for a premium spot at the Atlanta airport, JetBlue has already gotten into a dispute with airport officials, raising an issue over the gates it has been assigned to.
The airline said it had expected to be able to operate out of Concourse E, built in 1994 for international flights and noticeably more spacious than the domestic concourses.
But on Feb. 14, the airport sent a proposal for JetBlue to split its five daily flights between gates on Concourses D and E.
JetBlue said in a letter to airport officials Feb. 28 that it had relied on “promises, assurance and commitments that were hollow.” It added that if the company did not receive a response, “we reserve the right to seek all regulatory and statutory relief up to and including the initiation of legal action sounding in breach and detrimental reliance.”
In a follow-up letter, JetBlue asked the FAA to intervene, contending: “It appears that actions have been taken behind the scenes, at this late hour, to try to restrict competition at ATL.”
Meanwhile, JetBlue has held off on announcing when it will launch its additional routes from Atlanta.
“We’re not ready to take the second step into phase two,” JetBlue’s Clark said. “It’s not clear where the airport would even put us right now.”
In a letter to the FAA earlier this month, JetBlue said it is “in the position of having to decide whether to postpone the March 30 service launch at the airport, which would negatively affect more than 50,000 customers, or proceed in rushed fashion to ready gate and support space that is less optimal from an operational and a commercial perspective.”
According to the airport, the priority on Concourses E and F is international flights.
JetBlue said it is “pursuing all avenues needed to ensure that we have the best prospect for growth in Atlanta.”
Hartsfield-Jackson market shares
Delta, 81 percent
Southwest, 9.7 percent
American, 2.8 percent
United, 2 percent
Spirit, 1.8 percent
Frontier, 1.1 percent
Source: Hartsfield-Jackson. Figures for 2016, based on passenger counts.