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Breeze Airways launches with Spirit pricing and JetBlue niceness, just in time for travel’s rebound

The new airline was originally expected to launch last year. The founder says now it’s perfect timing.

Breeze Airways is the fifth airline start-up by JetBlue founder David Neeleman. (CeanOrrett)

In February 2020, JetBlue founder David Neeleman announced the name of his latest airline project, along with its estimated time of arrival. It would be called Breeze Airways and would launch in late 2020.

The world shut down a month later, when the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Airline traffic plummeted, and Breeze — Neeleman’s fifth airline start-up — went into a holding pattern.

“I really didn’t want to launch in the heat of covid,” Neeleman, whose most recent start-up airline was the Brazilian carrier Azul in 2008, said in an interview in April. “When we saw that vaccines were kind of on the horizon, I said, ‘Let’s just slow our roll a little bit and try to hit this thing, try to get the timing right.’”

On Friday, the new carrier is finally launching to the public, revealing routes and opening flights for sale. That comes as 48 percent of adults in the United States are fully vaccinated and domestic air travel continues to reach new covid-era highs.

Everything you need for the return to travel

“It’s going to be a heck of a comeback, and already we’re seeing very strong domestic recovery numbers,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group.

For Neeleman, that timing feels right: “I think it’s perfect. I don’t think you could do much better.”

He said he expects leisure travel to exceed pre-pandemic levels because of pent-up demand.

That’s the audience his airline is trying to reach in frequently overlooked markets. Breeze will focus its operations on four main airports: Tampa, Charleston, S.C., New Orleans and Norfolk. Flights will go to places such as Louisville; Tulsa; Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh and Huntsville, Ala. — routes that are typically only served with connecting flights. In all, the airline is launching with 39 nonstop routes between 16 cities.

Breeze executives say 95 percent of the carrier’s routes have no airline that serves them nonstop, meaning travelers have to take time-consuming and sometimes expensive connecting flights.

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“I would love to be able to get people there twice as fast for half as much money,” Neeleman said.

It’s the second airline to start in the United States this year with such an approach after Avelo Airlines launched in April with a base at Hollywood Burbank Airport. The low-cost airline said this month that it is expanding with an eastern base at Tweed New Haven Airport in Connecticut.

Starting an airline takes big bucks and obsessing over a thousand details. But do it during a pandemic? Avelo Airlines sees opportunity. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

On Breeze, introductory prices start at $39 each way for the cheapest fare category. In the now-familiar Spirit Airlines-like model of setting prices low but adding fees, Breeze will charge for items such as carry-on or checked bags — $20, which is low for such fees — and seat assignments. A more expensive fare category will include extra legroom, a checked and carry-on bag and priority boarding. There will not be fees for changes or cancellations.

In a nod to the airline’s self-proclaimed status as a “seriously nice” carrier, the types of fares are called “Nice,” “Nicer” and — later this fall, with the addition of larger planes — a business class called “Nicest.”

Neeleman said he has been setting the expectation for the Breeze workforce that they “just need to be nice.“

“We can’t always control everything, but we can control being nice,” he said. “I think we’ve convinced our people that if you’re nice, then your job’s a lot more fun.”

The TSA wanted 6,000 new officers by summer. Most positions are unfilled as airlines expect a passenger surge.

One of the airline’s more nontraditional approaches to staffing — hiring online college students as flight attendants — came under fire by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Bloomberg News reported. Breeze is keeping the program but has also expanded its hiring for the job.

“We did need to open it up to a more traditional role to get more flight attendants in place,” spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said in an email.

During the delay forced by the coronavirus, Neeleman said, staffers worked on technology — Breeze is heavily invested in its app for booking and trip planning — and the Federal Aviation Administration certification process. Planners also took a careful look at how the pandemic had altered demand and made changes accordingly.

“We’ve kind of had our foot on the brake and the gas at the same time,” he said.

Masks are still required in planes, trains and buses despite the loosened CDC guidelines

One effect of the pandemic still rankles Neeleman. Even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that unvaccinated people could take off their masks outdoors in uncrowded settings, he told Bloomberg News he thought people who wore masks outside while socially distanced were “complete morons.”

In an April interview with The Washington Post, he said he wished the CDC would ease mask rules for vaccinated people.

“Obviously it would be great if the CDC would say, ‘If you have your vaccine, take off your mask and go about your normal life and go travel and have a great life,’” he said.

The agency has since said that vaccinated people can remove their masks in many settings, but a mandate is still in place for airports, airplanes and other public transportation. The Breeze announcement notes that passengers and crew are required by federal law to wear masks on the planes and in airports, except while eating or drinking.

A maskless airline passenger blew his nose into a blanket. He now faces a $10,500 fine.

As difficult as the pandemic has been for the travel industry and airlines in particular, it’s a “great year” to be focusing on domestic leisure travel with business and international trips way down, said Robert Mann, an analyst and former airline executive. The downside for Breeze could be that that’s the market everyone is going for, including the country’s biggest airlines.

“Everybody is scrounging for the available leisure demand that they can find,” he said. “They’ll be a little more sensitive to anybody — start-ups or other competitors — trying to steal passengers.”

That might be good news for travelers, though, as larger carriers could seek to compete with the newcomers by offering their own cheap fares.

As for Neeleman’s “nice” approach, Mann said it’s a familiar marketing tune. JetBlue launched more than 20 years ago with a promise to “bring humanity back to air travel.”

“This is an industry that people love to hate,” he said. “They’ll look at any alternative to what seems to be nicer, especially if it’s got a low price attached to it. But ultimately it will come down to can they do things reliably? If they start reliably, if they deliver good passenger experience, they’ll get the word of mouth they’re looking for.”