Object of the Week

This Is Secretly the Perfect Time to Launch a New Airline

After more than a year of travel being ground to a halt, timing is everything

Photo illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Breeze Airways

Object of the Week is a column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.

A year deep into a deadly pandemic that crippled the travel industry — U.S. passenger traffic is down by half — does not sound like the best time for a startup airline to take delivery of 60 brand-new planes.

But maybe that assumption is wrong. Maybe, in fact, a few dozen crisp new jets, painted in snazzy metallic blues, are a perfect physical symbol for a category that seems, surprisingly, poised to take off again.

The soon-to-launch airline is called Breeze Airways, a budget carrier based in Salt Lake City and founded by David Neeleman, an industry vet famous for launching then-innovator JetBlue more than two decades ago. Breeze has been in the works since 2018, and was still code-named Moxy when it announced two years ago that it had ordered a batch of Airbus A220 aircraft. By February of 2020, the total order was pegged at 60 planes, to be delivered in a little over a year.

Of course, it was just a few weeks later that the world went on shutdown in response to the spread of Covid-19, and air travel ground to a near standstill. Existing carriers lobbied for — and received — what would eventually turn into about $50 billion in government grants to stay afloat without massive layoffs. Breeze, which had planned a mid-2020 launch (using a number of older Embraer E195 jets subleased from Brazil’s Azul airline), postponed its plans, disclosing few details.

But this week the New York Times reported that Breeze will announce its routes and start date in the next month or so — and has already taken delivery of its first new A220s. By chance or by design, that’s happening at the precise moment when air-travel optimism has been soaring again, at least on Wall Street. As airline CEOs have announced reduced cash burn and increased bookings from travelers anticipating a vaccinated world, airline shares have topped pre-pandemic levels. (In fact, there are now questions about whether those bailout grants were too generous.) This past weekend, as spring break season began to take hold, the Transportation Security Administration screened 1.3 million U.S. passengers — the highest figure since the pandemic kicked in.

A year of pent-up wanderlust has plenty of us feeling like any trip, anywhere, for any reason, sounds pretty appealing. And Breeze seems to be blowing its way right into that optimistic moment.

The celebration may prove premature if spring break revelry leads to a fresh virus spike. And we don’t really know what the new air travel normal will look like, particularly when it comes to the future of business travel. There’s an argument that videoconferencing and the like is “just as good” as all the “pointless” and environmentally unfriendly flying of the pre-pandemic era, as Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently argued. If that point of view wins out, the airlines are going to be in a holding pattern for years to come, given that by one estimate business travelers account for as much as 75% of airlines’ profits.

Right now, however, the prevailing mood feels close to the opposite: A year of pent-up wanderlust has plenty of us feeling like any trip, anywhere, for any reason, sounds pretty appealing. And Breeze, with its sparkly new jets and whimsical name, seems to be blowing its way right into that optimistic moment.

The Airbus A220 that is the centerpiece of its fleet is a relatively new single-aisle plane — a competitor to Boeing’s troubled 737-MAX — a model that reportedly can seat between 130 and 160 travelers, and can handle coast-to-coast flights. The airline’s strategy involves targeting direct flights between smaller but underserved markets — some of which have lost routes as major carriers cut back over the past year. Neeleman has said the airline will “cherry pick” routes to start, based on where opportunities have been created. (He has steadfastly refused to name destinations so far, but speculation has included cities like Louisville, Kentucky; Providence, Rhode Island; and Jacksonville, Florida.) The strategy may prove particularly resonant as dominant coastal business hubs give way to emerging Zoom commuter towns.

And while Breeze is positioning itself as low cost, it’s also emphasizing quality service, dubbing itself in “the world’s nicest airline” — which seems like a not-so-subtle dig at wildly successful yet often complained-about discounter Spirit. This positive vibe, a company spokesman claimed to the Times, will help offset any legroom issues.

Perhaps. For now, we can contemplate the exterior of the new planes, a distinct and modern mix of blues that seems calculated to stand out against a Windex-blue sky. Planes always double as billboards for their carriers; JetBlue’s sharp design contributed to the enormous buzz around its launch, helping inspire short-lived copycats like Ted and Song. But right now, a glimmering new jet is a symbol of forward-looking optimism that feels pitch-perfect to the hopeful excitement of the moment. “When these fly overhead,” the company spokesperson said, “there will be no question which airline it is.”

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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