LOS ANGELES — For the well-heeled traveler flying between New York and Los Angeles, for whom onboard Wi-Fi, roomy leather seats, a Zagat-approved meal and a piping hot washcloth are not enough, airlines have an announcement:
Your bed is ready.
As inches have been shaved off the seat cushions for coach travelers and surcharges have padded to their bills in an effort to please shareholders, major carriers are turning their attention to the latest must-have on a cross-country flight, a seat that folds out into a flat bed.
JetBlue, the airline whose egalitarian, all-coach seating promised to bring the humanity back to flying, became the latest to offer such pampering with the debut of its Mint service last week. It now offers 16 of the lie-flat seats — four of which are closed off as a private suite — on some of its New York-to-Los Angeles flights, with service to San Francisco scheduled to begin in late October.
JetBlue joins what has become an accelerating race to the top in domestic air travel. Delta announced last week that all eight of its daily nonstops between New York and Los Angeles are being equipped with the beds, which have been de rigueur for the discerning international traveler for at least a decade. American, United and Virgin America have all been aggressively expanding their lie-flat offerings.
For JetBlue, the shift to first class is a striking change in strategy, and in some ways in its culture. Since it started service in 2000, JetBlue distinguished itself just as much by what it offered — satellite TV and radio on every seat back, leather seats, the most legroom of any carrier and blue potato chips — as what it did not — a first-class or business-class section.
But in recent years its profit margins began to shrink as fuel costs rose and other airlines turned their attention to the front of the cabin. It has left JetBlue, analysts and executives say, with no choice but to chase the high-end market.
“New York and LA are the richest markets out there and there’s just a lot of people willing to pay for this,’’ said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst. “So you either claim your fair share of those people or you leave it on the table for others to take, and airlines can’t afford to leave that kind of money on the table for others to steal.’’
David Barger, JetBlue’s president, agreed, saying that with an improved economy, he was afraid of losing loyal customers who wanted a more pampered experience for cross-country flights.
“It forced us to get in the game or get out,’’ said Barger, who added that he also saw a market niche. “First-class and business fares are rude. There’s no reason to have to pay $3,000 for a lie-flat experience.’’
Mint service begins at $599, far below the $1,500-$1,800 that major carriers charge for one-way, first-class tickets between New York and Los Angeles. But the introductory fares will rise once JetBlue gets a better handle on the market, Barger said.
By early next year, Barger said, JetBlue should have 11 of the new Airbus A321 aircraft in operation, giving it 276 premium seats to sell.
This is no small move. Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, said each new seat could cost $50,000 and up, depending on what an airline orders.
Harteveldt said the development of Mint service was a significant step in the evolution of JetBlue away from being a discount airline committed to the coach traveler.
“This is the most tangible form of showing that the Jet Blue that’s flying now is a very different one from the airline that started almost 15 years ago,’’ Harteveldt said. “This move shows a desire to compete with a product that matters, but in a very focused way. This is not going to show up on a flight from New York to Buffalo or Boston to San Juan. It’s a smart move.’’
Barger said JetBlue was targeting small-business owners and executives, not necessarily the high-end corporate traveler. Specifically, someone like Mary Alice Foote, a marketing executive who returned home on Thursday from a trip to New York in a Mint class seat.
By the time Foote landed, she had texted her boss, raving about the experience, which included scrambled eggs, French toast and watermelon salad for breakfast, watching a movie on a 15-inch video screen, and being handed a parting gift — skin care products from Birchbox.
“It was great,’’ she said. “I can’t go back. It was like first class.’’
But a sampling of passengers awaiting a flight from Los Angeles to Kennedy International Airport illustrated the tricky balance JetBlue faces as it tries to improve its bottom line while holding onto its identity.
Lesley Palmer, who was traveling to visit her daughter in Brooklyn, said she flew JetBlue because it had the cheapest fare, but her savings were gobbled up after she paid an additional $160 for extra legroom to accommodate her large frame.
Diana Vachier, of Long Beach, New York, said JetBlue was not what it once was.
“They had a great plan,’’ Vachier said of the low prices and customer comforts. “But then they start to squeeze you. Little by little, the price creeps up. They’re charging now for more legroom. It makes you resentful.’’
Such sentiments about JetBlue are not uncommon, Mann said.
“That airline has become like everybody else in every way,’’ he said. “It’s no longer low fare, it’s no longer simple pricing, and if you look at some of the customer comments, it’s no longer a breath of fresh air.’’
And Vachier isn’t imagining being squeezed. To make room for the beds, JetBlue reduced the coach seat spacing to 33 inches from 34 inches, though the airline says that is still 2-6 inches more than other airlines have.
Barger acknowledges that such complaints are inevitable. He also points out much has changed since the airline was founded, like oil prices, which are about four times what they were back then. Still, he says his airline remains committed to what he calls its “core experience’’ — refusing to refer to the cabin as coach.
The new planes with Mint class have “new seats, new colors, new lighting and full broadband Wi-Fi,’’ Barger said. “That product is what I’m equally excited about. It’s not just about what’s behind the curtain.’’
In the coming months, JetBlue and other airlines will be analyzing the popularity and the profitability of the lie-flat experience. They will examine if there is a market in Boston and Seattle, and how robust the one in San Francisco is, searching out places where the customers may be lying flat, but the profit margins are not.