After interviewing Steve Leigh, Jet2’s commercial director, in early 2003 I left the meeting with conflicting feelings. On the one hand he was an affable chap; combining obvious acumen with a self-effacing quality it was difficult not to be gently charmed by. On the other hand he represented a concern, the Dart Group, which appeared to be jumping on the low-cost carrier bandwagon at a time when it was surely packed to capacity.
‘Oh well,’ I thought, with some sympathy for Leigh, as I headed off to track down the nearest Gregg’s, ‘it’ll probably go tits up in a year anyway. Especially seeing as they’re basing it at Leeds Bradford Airport!’
Fast-forward to May 2006 and Jet2 is one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world. It currently flies into 32 European destinations from six UK bases, while Steve Leigh’s stopped doing interviews to focus on more pressing aviation issues. Me? I’m still eating second-rate pasties. Shows what I know.
For a proper evaluation of exactly how it all went right for the Jet2 crew Carly Brear, the recently promoted head of sales and marketing, is the person to check in with. She started our interview with a fact that finally dispelled any lingering cynicism about the potency of their proposition:
\"At the end of March we’d carried four million customers since day one,\" she said, before pausing to deliver the sucker punch, \"but, to give you some idea of our growth, we’ll carry four million customers this year alone. It’s certainly keeping us busy.\"
Conveying, perhaps, that we’d better get on with the interview. So, what does Brear attribute the firm’s stellar start to? How have they managed to reach out from a solitary Leeds/Amsterdam route to grab 32 prime destinations in such a short space of time?
\"I think most of our competitors would agree that in terms of Leeds Bradford we found one of the last untapped airports when it came to setting up a low cost base. That’s certainly helped us build the foundations of the business.\"
As Brear joined Jet2 from a marketing exec position at said airport it’s unsurprising that she has a slightly evangelical tone when it comes to LBA. But then again it has served both her and the business well.
\"We really were the first to spot the potential here,\" she continued, \"as I think most other operators thought it was too close to Manchester, but the catchment here is huge; certainly big enough to sustain itself.
\"Air travel has become so much more convenient as a product of the low cost revolution and people want to fly, with minimum stress and without additional travel costs, from their local airports. That was certainly true of Leeds and I think we were welcomed with an attitude of ‘thank God, we’ve finally got our own budget airline’, which allowed us to almost take ownership of the city itself.\"
The warm reception Jet2 received from the under-serviced Yorkshire populace appears to have guided their expansion philosophy, as they’ve switched from seeking ownership of this one city to the entire north end of the country (the firm now also flies from Newcastle, Blackpool, Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh).
However, this isn’t an altruistic move to bring cheap air travel to the Northern masses, it’s just canny commercial sense.
\"There’s so much competition down South that we knew we’d face problems trying to break into it,\" admitted a candid Brear. \"That’s led us to follow a Fortress North attitude, where we’ve sought to tie up all the seams in the North and ensure that we’re available to people on a local basis. Again we’ve tried to take an ownership of the areas we serve.\"
This ‘ownership’ issue that keeps taxiing out onto the interview apron has been facilitated not just by Jet2’s airport selection, but also by their heavyweight local marketing campaigns. As Brear noted the firm likes to paint the town red (and white, as dictated by their corporate colour palette) when they take off with a new destination:
\"We really do use heavyweight outdoor and press campaigns when we arrive in an area or launch new routes. By being as prominent as possible we’re obviously selling the service, but again we’re trying to communicate to the residents that we’re their airline, here to serve their area.\"
This communication doesn’t stretch to dedicated TV and radio campaigns any longer (they did employ them during their initial launch stage, \"to show people that we were serious and give us the necessary gravitas\"), but there’s a perfectly intelligible reason for that:
\"Well Alan,\" Brear noted, with an almost satisfied chuckle, when the TV question was broached, \"when you’re selling seats for as little as we do it’s difficult to justify the budgets.\"
Our arrival at the advertising terminal brought us neatly onto an accusation that it’s high time a budget carrier responded to: Is there any chance we might see a more sophisticated strategy one day soon? Surely there must be more of a science to selling aviation services than shouting ‘destination’ before screaming ‘PRICE’ in bold, super-sized font?
\"By keeping it simple you pull people in,\" was Brear’s adroit rebuff to this line of questioning. \"The key focus in such a competitive market has to be price and if you tell people that a flight’s only going to cost them £9.99 then that’s often all they need to know.\"
A mention of Easyjet’s TV activity of last year (you know, the one where everyone turns into Superman) backfires somewhat, when we both decide that it didn’t really achieve an effective sell.
\"I think that you can either try to be too clever sometimes, or alternatively try and do too much. The danger then,\" Brear observed, \"is that it washes over the consumer looking for a good deal and they don’t actually recall anything.
\"I’d love to use our advertising to tell people that we have this great baggage limit, that the crew are fantastic, that the food on-board is reasonably priced, but at the end of the day that would cloud the main message, which is the most important thing. That’s why we’ve taken the decision to keep the price and the destinations at the forefront of our marketing. It achieves what we want it to and communicates what our customers want to know.\"
If the price and destination are centre-stage with Jet2’s marketing, a less savoury characteristic of the budget arena has been thankfully elbowed out of the limelight. With the exception of the odd dig in the ribs, such as their ‘bye bye BA’ ads when BA pulled out of Jet2’s Manchester served routes, the firm shies away from beating up competitors via their billboards and ad pages.
\"We don’t base any of our marketing decisions on antagonising other airlines. We’ve got a big enough task to face achieving what we want to, so we tend to focus on our own operation.\"
Brear concluded: \"Anyway, all the consumer wants to know is where you fly to and how much it costs. So what’s the point in entering into a catfight where you’re highlighting the competition’s service and basically giving them a free advert? It doesn’t make good commercial sense.\"
And that, at the end of the day, has been the defining trait of Jet2’s rapidly burgeoning blue-sky business: good commercial sense. From their eye for an untapped market, to their consolidation of ‘Fortress North’ and their unambiguous ‘price + destination’ marketing, they’ve kept the model simple and given the target audience exactly what they want. It’s given them a flying start and left us cynics to choke on our pastry crumbs.
Plane Talking: Jet2 facts
First flight: 12th February 2003
Passengers in year one: 360,000
Projected passengers this year: Four million
Agencies (all Leeds-based): Home (advertising), Mediavest (media buying), Lucre (PR).
Brear says: \"The agencies you work with play a huge part in how successful you are. We see them as an extension of Jet2.\"