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JetBlue’s Boston to London route moves forward, but with one small snag

Unless coveted slots open at Heathrow between now and the third quarter of 2021, JetBlue will be landing Boston flights not in London, but in Stansted. Never heard of Stansted? Don’t feel bad.

After a COVID-19 delay, JetBlue is setting its sights on London again.
After a COVID-19 delay, JetBlue is setting its sights on London again.

When JetBlue announced plans to launch service from Boston to London, the assumption was that those flights would run between Logan and Heathrow, or at least Logan and London Gatwick, which is the second busiest airport in England.

But unless coveted slots open at Heathrow between now and the third quarter of 2021, when the airline’s first trans-Atlantic flights are expected to begin, JetBlue will be landing Boston flights not in London, but in Stansted. If you’ve never heard of Stansted, don’t feel bad. The airport is about an hour north of London. Its official name is London Stansted Airport, but tacking “London” onto the airport’s name is akin to the Manchester, N.H., airport being named Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

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In a statement, a JetBlue spokesman didn’t address Stansted by name, but said the airline “has applied for multiple slots at various London airports and remains committed to launching service in 2021.”

“We are confident that we have a viable path into more than one London airport,” Philip Stewart wrote in an e-mail.

The dilemma facing JetBlue is finding coveted slots at Heathrow, which, until this year, was the busiest airport in Europe, and by far the busiest airport in England. The UK’s slot regulator, Airport Coordination Ltd., denied JetBlue’s request for 42 slot pairs at Heathrow. Each slot pair represents a round-trip flight. The 42 requested slot pairs would have allowed two daily flights from Logan, and two daily flights from JFK.

Instead, JetBlue was granted 14 slot pairs at Gatwick, which it will use for one daily nonstop flight from JFK to London, and 28 slot pairs at Stansted, which will allow for two daily nonstop flights from Logan, according to filings. Even slots at Gatwick are hard to come by. JetBlue applied for 28 slots at Gatwick, which would have allowed it two daily flights from JFK, but it only received permission for 14.

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Perhaps the easiest way to understand the concept of airport slots is to think of them as reservations. In order to keep air traffic levels manageable, only so many slots are permitted per day.

“Not all airports are slot controlled. In fact the vast majority are not,” said Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of the book “Cockpit Confidential.” “The London airports however, are, mostly because of runway limitations. Gatwick has just one runway. Heathrow has only two. Slots can be very valuable, and airlines sometimes sell, trade, or barter them.”

The good news for Boston travelers is that Stansted Express, a train from the airport into London, runs every 15 minutes and costs $23. The time on the train is about 45 minutes to the city center. A less expensive bus option also runs between the airport and London, but can get stuck in traffic jams during rush hour.

The bad news is that London Stansted, which is primarily serviced by Ryanair, is consistently ranked one of the worst airports in the UK for delays, and and a 2018 survey named it the second-worst airport in the world.

JetBlue first announced plans to begin flights from Boston to London in 2019, citing customer demand for the route. Flights will be operated on the Airbus A321LR, which, with a range of more than 4,000 miles, can easily travel to London, and eventually beyond if the airline opts for further transcontinental expansion.

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At the time, Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, told the Globe, “I can’t talk specifically about what future fares will be for Boston to London, but I will say that they will come down very significantly over what people are paying today on other airlines.”


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.