Jet2: where did it all go right?

The Man Who Pays His Way: the airline’s customer-first approach has won it plaudits and lifelong customers

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Sunday 12 February 2023 14:46 GMT
Related: Jet2 passengers cheer as woman is marched off flight for ‘slapping passengers’

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Twenty years ago this week, a new British airline was launched: Jet2, based at Leeds Bradford airport. Few observers, including me, rated its chances. The UK skyscape seemed clear enough. Two big low-cost airlines had their main bases in Britain: easyJet and Ryanair, with easyJet at the time in the ascendant.

British Airways was starting to fight back against the budget brands, though its own effort – in the shape of Go – had since been subsumed into easyJet. Other UK-based attempts to compete, including Debonair, Buzz and MyTravelLite, had either closed or would soon be folded into other carriers.

The arguments against Jet2 were powerful: easyJet and Ryanair had established bases in the London area, which was (and is) by far the biggest aviation market in Europe. No-frills flying was not proven in northern England, with the charter airlines well established. And, whispered rivals, Leeds Bradford’s location was awkward and prone to fog.

Nevertheless, shortly after 7am on 12 February 2003, I settled into my seat aboard Jet2 flight 201 to Amsterdam. In the next seat was Philip Meeson, the founder of the airline. The flight was an hour late due to fog – but at the destination, Schiphol airport, rather than West Yorkshire.

The plane was a secondhand Boeing 737 picked up cheap (with seven others) after the failure of Ansett of Australia in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Oddly, the very first couple to book on Jet2 when seats first went on sale were “no-shows”. A pity, because they were set to be awarded two Jet2 flights anywhere for their accomplishment. The destinations they could have chosen expanded over the next two months to include Alicante, Barcelona, Malaga, Milan, Nice and Palma.

Since then, Amsterdam has vanished from the Jet2 map – but dozens of other destinations have appeared, from Cyprus in the east to Madeira in the west.

So too has the range of UK bases: Belfast International, Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted. The last of those is particularly significant, since Jet2 chose to challenge Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair, at its biggest base. They seem to be coexisting fairly peacefully so far at the Essex airport. Perhaps that is because, while many of their destinations are the same, their approach is very different.

Ryanair has a formidable but transactional approach to flying. It is the safest airline in the world in terms of the number of passengers flown without a fatality; punctuality is also an obsession; and often Ryanair offers the lowest fares (I fly on it more than any other for that reason). I find the ground staff and crew universally friendly and professional.

Yet the Jet2 approach is altogether warmer. Passengers are welcomed at the airport as though their journey is a cause for celebration – which it usually is, with many passengers off on their annual holiday. And that harmonises with Jet2 Holidays, which has been extraordinarily successful at rejuvenating the package holiday since its launch in 2007 – just at the time when it appeared that the market had gone DIY.

Initially the holiday part of the enterprise was a sideline. Now, Jet2 Holidays has become one of the UK’s big two tour operators in the UK alongside Tui.

The financial failure of first Monarch (2017) and then Thomas Cook (2019) undoubtedly benefitted Jet2. But then came Covid, and the nightmare of turning from a successful airline and holiday company into a refund machine: returning holidaymakers’ cash when trips in their millions were cancelled during the pandemic.

Alone of the giant companies, Jet2 set about the rueful task of handing back money with energy, speed and generosity. That customer-first approach at a time of immense stress won the company many plaudits and lifelong customers.

At the start of 2023, it has 115 aircraft – compared with just two at the launch.

Twenty years on, I am delighted that Jet2 has proved the doubters – including me – comprehensively wrong.

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