Now let’s not get carried away… The economics of running an airline (spoiler alert, food is not a money-spinner) mean you won’t be welcomed with a complimentary bottle of kombucha and some champagne truffles when you arrive at seat 28D, but you might just find something more interesting in your snack box if you fly JetBlue, says product development manager Nicole Huang.
“Food and beverage is crucial to the JetBlue experience and when you compare us to the other domestic airlines, we’re really at a different level.”
We are constantly being approached by companies interested in working with us
But how can you curate a box full of goodies that will impress foodies in a snack box (JetBlue has five ‘eat up’ boxes, each containing 4-5 snacks) with a $7 price tag?
It’s tough, says Huang, but by working with suppliers and finding the right products and pack sizes, it is possible to deliver a balance of well-known and more niche products that can create a win-win for the airline, its customers, and vendors looking for extra exposure and new channels to market.
“We are constantly being approached by companies interested in working with us and in turn we attend a lot of trade shows from the National Restaurant Association show to the Fancy Food Show and Natural Products Expo West to find new products, trends and suppliers.”
But what’s in it for vendors?
In the case of complimentary snacks (JetBlue is unusual in that it offers unlimited free snacks to its passengers), the volumes can be significant, given that more than 30 million passengers fly with JetBlue every year, she says*, something that has been transformative for a brand such as Skeeter Nut-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies.
In the case of the snack boxes, the volumes are not as high, but they can still be significant, and the exposure you can get is very appealing, especially for smaller brands.
People were reaching out to them saying, We tried your brand on JetBlue and we loved it
Put another way, if your customers are in a pressurized tube at 35,000 feet, you have a pretty captive audience that will see your product images printed on the back of seat back cards, and will experience your product in a different way than if you are competing with hundreds of other brands in a crowded grocery store, says Huang.
“We also work closely with our suppliers who can come in and do sampling at Terminal 5 at JFK, and we work with them to build excitement around events such as national chocolate chip cookie day for Skeeter nut-free cookies.
“Field Trip Jerky is a great example of a brand that was fairly small when we first started working with them and it really helped them drive awareness of the brand. A lot of people were reaching out to them [retailers as well as consumers] saying, We tried your brand on JetBlue and we loved it.”
The shelf-life on snacks selected for JetBlue's snack boxes must be at least 3-4 months (the products must be shelf stable with robust packaging), while the logistics of supplying a national airline means that firms must be able to supply certain volumes, and deliver to JetBlue co-packers across the country, says Nicole Huang. However, JetBlue is able to provide good forecasts to help firms predict demand, she says. "We probably talked to Skeeter (nut-free cookies) for two years before we brought them on board."
You’d be amazed at how much feedback we get
As for measuring success for brands within a snack box, JetBlue monitors both which boxes sell, and which snacks customers most often leave behind uneaten, and uses this to help determine future selections, she says. In other words, if your snack is consistently the one that gets left in the box, after four to six months, you’re out, and it’s someone else’s turn.
However, Huang also captures feedback from surveys, cabin crew, social media and other channels, about what customers think of the food on offer, she says. “We have a pretty robust reporting system and you’d be amazed at how much feedback we get. People are always saying where can I buy this product, and we tell them."
In general, the snack boxes – which are built around themes – are refreshed every one or two years, but if something is exceptionally popular it could stay longer, while if the opposite is true, it could be pulled after as little as four months.
What consumers say, and what they do…
One thing JetBlue has found is that when it comes to asking consumers what they want from inflight snacks, what they say they want, and what they actually choose once they hit 30,000 feet, don’t always correlate (passengers typically say they would like healthier snacks, but don’t necessarily pick them once they are airborne), she notes.
“People like their guilty pleasures.”
* In 2014, JetBlue carried over 32 million passengers with an average of 825 daily flights and served 87 destinations in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America.