Jet2: The success story of the Yorkshire airline which has ridden the budget travel storm

A Jet2 aircraft at Leeds Bradford Airport
A Jet2 aircraft at Leeds Bradford Airport
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Monarch, TUI, Ryanair, Flybe, and Thomas Cook.

These giants of the budget travel industry have all experienced significant turbulence in their Yorkshire markets since 2017. Monarch and Thomas Cook have collapsed completely, with huge job losses and in both cases, customers stranded abroad who had to be repatriated.

Leeds Bradford is Jet2's home base

Leeds Bradford is Jet2's home base

Ryanair have recently announced the withdrawal of several flights and destinations from Leeds Bradford, while Flybe has pulled its Dusseldorf route and abandoned its other Yorkshire base, Doncaster Sheffield, completely. TUI also confirmed a mass pull-out from Leeds Bradford, with package tours departing instead from Manchester and Doncaster Sheffield.

Ryanair to stop flying to these destinations from Leeds Bradford Airport
Sitting calmly among this chaos in the terminal is Jet2, the airline and holiday operator founded in 2002. It is the main carrier flying out of its home base of Leeds Bradford, but has expanded to several other UK airports and has a significant presence nationally and in the European holiday resorts it primarily serves.

While rivals have floundered, Jet2 has grown in stature and seemingly weathered the economic storm that has engulfed the low-cost travel sector.

So, just why has it succeeded where others have failed?

Humble beginnings

Jet2 now has 11 bases, including its Leeds Bradford headquarters and two foreign airports, Alicante and Palma. Until it began flying from Stansted in 2017, Jet2 mostly ignored the south of England, operating from the likes of Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast, Edinburgh, East Midlands, Glasgow and Birmingham. There are over 12,000 staff.

The first Jet2 flight departed Leeds Bradford for Amsterdam in February 2003. In its first few months, it was almost charmingly low-key, using just two aircraft to shuttle between Leeds and the Dutch city. Later that year, seven other destinations were added. Manchester and Belfast flights began a year later, with Newcastle opening in 2005 as the expansion continued unabated.

In 2006, brand owners Channel Express moved the head offices from Bournemouth to Leeds, and a year later the Jet2holidays arm was launched to offer an inclusive tour experience. Other subsidies focus on city breaks and villa hire.

In 2008, Jet2 distanced themselves from their early brand alignment with the north, dropping the 'north's low-cost airline' slogan and replacing it with 'friendly low fares'.

Their popular New York Christmas shopping flights were added on a seasonal basis, and in 2015 they placed an order for what would eventually be 35 brand-new Boeing 737-800 planes from the manufacturer's factory in Seattle.

KLM to boost capacity on Leeds Bradford to Amsterdam route
The total Jet2 fleet size is now nearly 100 owned and leased aircraft. The destination roster is now 70, with a focus on Spain, France, Greece, Italy and Turkey's Mediterranean coastal resorts.

Jet2's service from Leeds Bradford dwarfs that of other operators from the airport. There are 53 destinations, with 13 core city break and sun routes that are flown all year round.

They've responded to customer demand and changing travel trends by moving away from their traditional Med sun-seeker audience, adding flights to the eastern European cities beloved by the stag and hen do market, winter ski services to the Alps, routes to party islands like Ibiza and trips to emerging destinations like the Black Sea resorts in Bulgaria.

Other seasonal specials now include winter tourism hotspot Iceland and Christmas trips to Lapland, as well as the ever-popular New York flights.

Canny planning for the future

Business insiders have praised the success of Jet2's policy of operating regular scheduled flights at convenient times from local airports, rather than the charter model that Thomas Cook often used.

Other aviation experts have pointed to the canny acquisition of their aircraft fleet, which don't have to be intensively worked, and can do short flights several times a day cost-effectively. They can also take on cargo contracts.

Passengers are seduced with more generous baggage allowances and good customer service, which include meet-and-greet staff at overseas airports for package tour customers. Allocated seating is still available, despite this privilege being eroded by other carriers.

They have also committed to their core markets, dropping unprofitable routes such as Manchester to Gatwick in favour of leisure destinations.

CEO Steve Heapy admitted they entered the Stansted market due to feedback from travel agents in the region that the airport wasn't perceived as a suitable base for tour operators, with many customers departing from Gatwick instead despite living in East Anglia.

This is how many passengers were arrested for being drunk at Leeds Bradford Airport
They don't want to get too big for their boots, and are refusing to add scheduled long-haul flights or open their own hotels.

Get the aircraft right, get the airline right

Aviation journalist Sally Gethin runs her own consultancy, supplying expert comment on matters relating to the airline industry.

She says one of the key facets of Jet2's success has been their policy of aircraft acquisition and usage.

Put simply, they own most of their fleet, and they use just one type of plane.

"The fleet is comprised of a single aircraft type, the B737-800. Choosing a single type offers efficiencies of scale in operation and maintenance, as well as flight crew training. Moreover, the B737-800 is best in class for the single-aisle aircraft sector, building on the established and reliable B737 type, the workhorse of many low-cost carriers around the world.

"The B737-800 offers a state-of-the-art cabin - more legroom, seat pitch and generally more comfort, which is more enjoyable for passengers than previous iterations of the B737."

In a crowded and competitive market, passengers faced with a choice of more than one budget carrier are more likely to opt for the flight that offers the most comfortable journey, especially when heading to medium-haul winter sun destinations such as the Canary Islands.

Family-friendly, flexible booking

"Jet2.com - even the name - reflects current and changing consumer digital trends, offering online as well as telephone booking options for family-friendly customer service," adds Sally.

"In terms of physical stores, it provides a 'pop up' mobile solution as well as airport shops. For the traditional purchase, customers can still pop into a high street travel agent to book a Jet2.com holiday. Commercial broadcast TV advertising is important to reach all consumer audiences, to include both traditional and younger customers."

A good on-board product

Jet2 stands out from its rivals when it comes to one of the most contentious travel issues - luggage allowance and advance seat booking. Other operators have attempted to cut these 'luxuries' down to the bone to save on running costs, but Jet2 has preserved them.

"The company does offer generous baggage allowances and also for carry-on at 22kg and 10kg respectively, earning it a number of industry accolades and awards," says Sally.

"The on-board product is highly competitive - the menu has been improved this year with vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, highlighted for easier navigation for passenger preferences. This shows the airline is in touch with consumer trends and habits. This is also reflected in the seasonality of the travel products, e.g Christmas flights.

"They also do not rely on the traditional fixed duration of holidays - seven, 10 or 14-night breaks; it tailors the length of holiday to the customer, meaning the customer is in charge of the duration of their holiday. This is enabled by the high frequency of flights and availability from different UK airports.

"On-time performance (punctuality), which is rated independently in the UK, puts Jet2.com in a strong position - this needs to be maintained to retain its popularity."

Sustainable, gradual growth and a focus on the north

"The company grew out of a small freight/cargo airline in the south of England. Growth was gradual and sustained - contributing to the strength of the business and its assets today, 100-strong aircraft. The airline industry is very cyclical and capricious. The gradual evolution of the company makes it more resilient than some others to withstand those challenges. It was a shrewd move to migrate north and set up bases in Leeds Bradford and Manchester, capitalising on a paucity of low-cost carriers in the north and on the increasing appetite and opportunity across the UK, rather than remaining south-centric. Stability is also gained by owning its own fleet rather than leasing aircraft.

"Jet2.com is a very engaged operator - in the sense that it engages with a vast range of lobbying and industry-wide trends. For example it became a member of A4E, which is an association of UK airlines seeking to mobilise the government to create a more sustainable and better business environment for growth. This year it has been lobbying government to streamline and improve the passenger compensation rules - an initiative yet to be fully played out, especially in light of Brexit. As a member of Airlines UK, it has also been part of a lobbying effort to maintain connectivity in and out of Europe regardless of a no-deal Brexit."

The challenges ahead

According to Sally, the biggest threat to Jet2 is that it becomes a victim of its own success.

"Having witnessed and gained from the demise of rival Thomas Cook, Jet2.com needs to ensure it does not fall victim to similar internal corporate dynamics - and does not become a victim of its own success.

"If it continues its steady trajectory - focusing on the consumer (trends and behaviours), meeting the demand for an excellent customer-centric service, without over-diversifying then it should continue to remain profitable.

"New York is lucrative as a long-haul destination - but any further long-haul expansion plans would need to be carefully managed so it does not over-stretch itself. It should stick to the old mantra 'sell to your strengths', offering visible value for money including transparency over its ancillary revenues such as 'extras' on-board, and reassurance (its holidays are ATOL protected) in a jittery market - consumers are still unnerved by what happened to Thomas Cook and anxious about Brexit affecting their income, budgets and travel options.

"Climate change is increasing as a consumer priority - and so Jet2.com needs to make sure its decisions (expansion for example) are made sustainably. UK airports as a whole, including Leeds Bradford Airport, are currently under scrutiny from environmental groups.

"It needs to keep its expenditure under control, remain fully customer-centric, monitor and stay ahead of new consumer trends while delivering a reliable and reassuring product to its customer base. It should remain vigilant to competitive pressures and not become complacent. TUI is also extremely competitive and in touch with consumer trends and new competitors and entrants could still steal its crown."