Why JetBlue Ditched a Business Selling Something Everyone Wants

The live satellite television on JetBlue’s flights has long been a point of pride and distinction for the airline. Few passengers knew that JetBlue Airways owned the company, LiveTV, that made it possible to watch Desperate Housewives at 30,000 feet, and now the subsidiary is installing a new generation of fast Internet access for airlines around the world.

JetBlue sold LiveTV to the French aerospace company Thales on Thursday for $400 million, a roughly fivefold return on what it paid for the company 12 years ago. The business of in-flight entertainment was a bit too far afield from running an airline, and JetBlue was planning to invest $75 million in the unit this year—money it certainly wanted to spend elsewhere.

The change in ownership could also bring a boost to LiveTV. Many airlines would never buy the service from JetBlue, “because you’re kind of subsidizing your competitor,” says Cowen Group analyst Helane Becker. Under Thales, LiveTV will continue to equip and service JetBlue’s fleet, according to JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston. “It’s not core to our business,” he says, and will be “better provisioned” under a new owner. The airline has said for more than two years that it was planning to divest the business.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the price is low considering that LiveTV’s sales may reach $150 million this year, as Becker wrote today in a client note. The unit had revenue of $72 million last year and $81 million in 2012. Becker predicts JetBlue will use the sale cash to fund its new airplane deliveries.

LiveTV, which is based in Melbourne, Fla., has installed its television product on airlines including United, WestJet, Frontier, Alitalia, and Azul, the Brazilian carrier run by former JetBlue Chief Executive Officer and founder David Neeleman. United and JetBlue are also using the company’s Wi-Fi service. LiveTV has installed its equipment on 461 airplanes as of Dec. 31. It has firm orders for 196 more aircraft through 2015.

JetBlue shares rose 2.5 percent on the news, to $8.97, in trading on Thursday. The stock is up 5 percent this year.

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