JetBlue Airways has built a reputation as an airline that places a premium on customer service: A relatively new fleet of aircraft with roomy leather seats, 36-channel LiveTV at every seat, XM Satellite Radio, unlimited onboard snacks. Now the carrier has put its own stamp on the concession and retail program at its JFK Terminal 6 base.

Rather than contracting out concessions to a single management company, JetBlue decided a few years ago to take charge of the program. The move effectively eliminated the middleman and enabled it to sign up selected vendors or "business partners" who would provide the kinds of food and retail opportunities that company officials believed would offer the best products to passengers. "We decided we could do a better job," CEO David Neeleman tells AE&T. "It's healthy to have competitionto have people fighting for customers. They all work harder."

Ray Smyth, who led the company's development effort for the airport program, says that from day one it looked for vendors that would "put their heart and soul into developing a good customer experience, high quality product and customer satisfaction." Three years ago, JetBlue launched free high-speed Internet access in Terminal 6 so that passengers can hook up to check e-mail, surf the Web or conduct work. At about the same time, it made the decision to revamp the existing concessions program to reflect its commitment to customer service. "We knew the industry, we knew what we had to do," Smyth says. "The quality, the type of service was very important." He says the airline looked for three basics in selecting partners: Product, revenue and customer service. "We would accept any proposal, but it came down to those three things," he says of the selection process. "We know what makes a customer happy."

JetBlue is the only carrier at JFK that manages its terminal concession program, he notes. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK, receives a portion of the concession revenue, as does JetBlue.

The changeover was completed in January with the arrival of a burger vendor, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger. "There is something for everyone here," said Smyth as he walked through the terminal on a recent busy travel day. In total, JetBlue contracted out 6,500 sq. ft. of retail space and 10,000 sq. ft. of food and beverage space. The business agreements with all of the partners require that they meet a certain level of maintenance and service with their programs.

Airport managers often are hamstrung by long-term lease agreements with vendors, some up to 10 years, that make it difficult or impossible to replace or upgrade concessions. Smyth says the length of each lease at JFK varies but does not offer specifics. Initially, vendors were offered short-term contracts renewable on a six-month basis, all of which since have been extended. Major partners include Hudson News for retail and OTG Management, which oversees all of the food and beverage operations with the exception of two that are locally owned, Aunt Butchie's and Famiglia's.

"It's been a tremendous experience for us," says OTG Management CEO Rick Blatstein. "We work directly with the decision-makers. Their focus is on how can we help." OTG has worked in airport concessions before and has programs at New York LaGuardia and Philadelphia. Blatstein hopes to expand into some West Coast airport markets this year and to enter Reagan Washington National with a Cibo Bistro and Wine Bar. He points out the Cibo Direct Fresh Market concept at the JetBlue terminal that includes satellite installations near the gates where passengers can choose from more than 500 takeaway food items. "The selection and the quality is what sets us apart," he tells AE&T.

A recent tour of the bustling concession area beyond the security gates in Terminal 6 gave evidence that JetBlue is on the right track. Passengers waiting for flights have a full menu of items from Chinese to Mexican to sushi in the International Food Hall, delicatessens with light sandwiches and salads, plus sitdown restaurants. Many of the offerings are "grab and go"food that can be packaged easily to take on a transcontinental flight.

The airline also incorporated local New York City favorites in its venue, such as Aunt Butchie's, The Grove and Papaya King. And there is the popular New York-based Oasis Day Spa, which provides facials, manicures and other services for customers before they hop on a flight. Says Smyth: "So far we've received nothing but positives about it. People are surprised to find it." Additionally, there is a JetBlue store run by the company that offers aviation-related items and memorabilia. And of course the entire area is carpeted in the JetBlue palette of blue-on-blue squares.

The carrier is constructing a new terminal that will be double the size of the existing one. The concession program will be replicated there and perhaps include new vendors. That terminal is expected to be operational by 2008. In January JetBlue completed a customer survey in which customers said its onboard coffee was, well, awful. The logical choice was to serve coffee provided by Dunkin' Donuts, a vendor in Terminal 6.

The most satisfying part of the program for Smyth has been "seeing it evolve, seeing what it was and what it is now and how a concession program can change the terminal. Before, it looked like a high school cafeteria. It's paid off."