JetBlue’s Got Bigger Problems Than the Polar Vortex

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Matthew Hinton / AFP / Getty Images

If you were trying to get to Vegas on JetBlue’s Flight 711 yesterday, you were out of luck. So were customers on more than 400 JetBlue flights, as the crippling “polar vortex” snow and cold combined with new Federal Aviation Administration rules pertaining to pilot rest to poleax the carrier’s logistics.

According to FlightAware.com, 46% of JetBlue’s flights were canceled yesterday. The company began shutting down operations at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and Boston at 1 p.m. and planned to restart at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. In other words, JetBlue was taking a time out to allow for 17 hours of rest for crews, and time for its ground and service people to get ready to fly again. Passengers might be stuck for days.

The company blamed not only the weather, but new FAA rules that mandate more down time for pilots. Delayed by the storm, JetBlue pilots began “timing out” and becoming stranded and unavailable to fly, throwing the system into chaos. “While our team has been working to repair schedules by bringing crews and planes back “into position” and resume normal operations, further cancellations are still occurring as crews exceed their allowed duty times,” the company said in a statement.

Lots of airlines shelved flights this week, but JetBlue distinguished itself. Southwest, by contrast, scuttled only 10% of its flights. Sure, Southwest has the benefit of warmer geography, but a third of JetBlue’s “lift” is to southern destinations, and other airlines exposed to the elements did better: Chicago-and-New York-heavy United and American each canceled 13% of their flights, Delta and American only 3%. And all the other airlines faced the same pilot rest regulations, which they’ve known about for two years. JetBlue asked for an extension and the FAA told to take a hike.

It’s not necessarily meteorology or regulation that is JetBlue’s gnarliest difficulty. JetBlue has what analysts have labeled a ‘tweener’ issue that makes it more vulnerable than other big carriers to calamity. Analysts say the company is neither a network carrier like American nor a true low-cost carrier (LCC) like it once was because the carrier has grown so rapidly. And successfully. Network carriers run hub-and-spoke operations that have many more pieces that they can move around the board—hubs, pilots, crews and jets can be optimized for the moment. If you’re stuck in Los Angeles and direct flights to New York are canceled due to weather, Delta or American can route you back through a number of different hubs, say Dallas, Phoenix, Denver or Atlanta. Yes, at a certain point, even the network carriers run out of options because every jet flies above 80% capacity these days, but they have more available moves to make than does Jet Blue.

JetBlue rejects the tweener label. “Those are absolutely fighting words,” a JetBlue executive told me not long ago. The company does some hubbing out of JFK but prides itself on bringing its comfort at low fares philosophy to places thought unreachable not long ago. “We have what it takes to be a fully fleshed out low-cost carrier,” the exec said. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be in Columbia or Peru, the biggest airline in Puerto Rico, or going to Alaska.”

The question is: Can you get back? That’s the risk of being spread out without hubs. A midwinter meltdown isn’t new to JetBlue, either. In 2007, under similar conditions, it famously suffered a massive breakdown on Valentine’s Day. Not only were flights scrapped, but passengers were trapped on the tarmac at JFK in New York City for hours. That incident helped to change the rules about how long planes could sit on runways and JetBlue responded with its own passenger bill of rights. On that day, according to a Harvard Business School case study, Jet Blue was hindered by its dispersed work force and its reliance on the Web, “a low-cost solution that works well until thousands of passengers need to rebook at once.” CEO and JetBlue founder David Neeleman labeled the even the worst operational week in the company’s history.

Make that the second worst.

JetBlue’s service offering—what it does in the sky— remains one of the best in the industry. But as a tweener, like the label or not, its logistics remain vulnerable. Passengers are going to have to take that into consideration. I’ve been stranded by Jet Blue before—left overnight in Denver when the plane didn’t show—but I’m planning fly JetBlue to Las Vegas in two weeks. If I’m lucky, they’ll have a jet that can actually make it there.

10 comments
louann54
louann54

I don't know about u folks but I certainly would like to get on a plane being piloted by someone who got some sleep before the flight. I know a bit off topic but I saw a documentary that remains fresh in my mind regarding the pay these people earn with hundreds of lives in their hands. If I was about to have surgery and caught the.surgeon yawning, I'm pretty.sure we would reschedule. And that's just me. Not me plus 200 other people. Just IMO. pretty sure living is the better option. Plus those life jackets make me look fat and frumpy and I'm not looking for work on that damn boo boo show.

NewsContent
NewsContent

COLOMBIA!!!!!!!! Does anyone proof/edit your stories? Sadder still is the fact that your writer doesn't even know enough to correct such an obvious error.

cbalan
cbalan

Great story.  But would it be to much to ask someone to please proofread the articles before publishing them? Geez!

uchrisbrown
uchrisbrown

Hopefully #Jet Blue will overcome thes shortfalls

nackchoon
nackchoon

 Regarding: “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be in Columbia or Peru, the biggest airline in Puerto Rico, or going to Alaska.”


I'm sure the exec meant "Colombia" not Columbia.

ZachSlater
ZachSlater

Dig deeper.  Ask the Pilots' Association how and why Jet Blue didn't make the necessary adjustments to meet FAA regulations when all the other airlines managed.  Ask Jet Blue why confirmed full-fare fliers couldn't check-in online Monday a full 5 hours before their public shutdown announcement.  Ask Jet Blue why a traveler in Burlington Vermont, speaking by phone to a local Jet Blue employee as told around noon Monday that it made no sense that he couldn't check-in as his flight was "open and scheduled" on the computer at the airport.  Ask Jet Blue why they shut their national phone lines PRIOR to taking 17 hours off.  Ask Jet Blue why their website told fliers Monday on line to "go to the airport and speak to a Jet Blue service agent about your travel plans".  Ask Jet Blue why no notification of any kind was made to confirmed but cancelled paid travelers that rebooking was possible?  And ask all the airlines why they do not automatically rebook all travelers on cancelled flights?


I will be sending a proposal to amend the Jet Blue Fliers Bill of Rights and any other private or public policy, ordinance, regulation, and/or law to my local, state and federal representatives.  Four needed provisions to stop the chaos:


1. No matter the cause, if a flight is cancelled the airline must automatically rebook traveler on next open seat in any class from same ticketed point-to-point destination (for multi-stop fliers, airline is allowed to reroute via different cities only if this shortens the original flight time or if traveler authorizes change). Traveler is required to accept or decline automatic rebooking in 12 hours using the selected method of flight notification made at original time of purchase.2. Airlines are required to simultaneous advise public and staff of any cancellations, delays, rescheduling, or other advisory of any kind other than security alerts.3. Airlines are allowed to suspend on-line booking (on their site or third-party site from which they accept reservations) for only 60 minutes. Within this time they are required to execute the automatic rebooking of all passengers on cancelled flights.4. Failure to adhere to any one of these provisions results in offending airline refunding entire cost of ticket (not just the cancelled portion), issuance of a free/pre-paid round-trip ticket anywhere in the airline's network in the same name as the ticket holder (domestic for domestic; international for international), and payment of a $million fine to the appropriate federal agency (each additional failure increases the fine by $million). Plenty of blah blah boiler plate.

spamiam7
spamiam7

@cbalan I think that these days, the answer to that question is a firm "Yes."

nuschler73
nuschler73

@ZachSlater You ask some very interesting questions but A) They sent out an automated call to their customers last Thursday night before this began B) They did not shut their phones down PRIOR to taking 17 hours off.  Get your facts straight. Their phones were down for aprox 27 minutes yesterday am due to the overloaded system. I know this because I haven't seen my spouse for almost a week as she has been working mandatory OT for Jetblue.  I have these questions for you Mr. Slater: Why are there no articles about AA who canceled 13% of their flights?  Why is AA simply not answering their phone.  Why is there no mention of 3 JFK shutdowns due to weather over a 4 day period of time which is out of Jetblues control?  Yes there are certainly areas for improvement but why is there no mention of Jetblue's compensation for their displaced customers as they are working to make things right.  You may want to check out Jetblue's cancellation policy for Hercules.  You are already behind the 8 ball.

glennmarg
glennmarg

@nuschler73 @ZachSlater These are the facts as far as my own situation, I was checked in for my next days flight and was later notified  my flight had been cancelled and I would be rebooked within 2 hours, 3 days later I have yet to hear from JB. During that time I tried to contact them on the web and by phone, the phone site hung up on me after a few minutes each time after referring me back to the website which showed no schedule info and referred me back to the phone. Having school age children and a job I need for income I was forced to purchase new tickets on DELTA which was somehow able to get a plane from Ft. Myers Florida to NYC via Detroit while Jetblue couldn't turn on their computer system. So I'm out two days pay and my kids missed two days school. It's understandable that weather or even labor factors will wreck havoc but when a customer has bought a ticket (not a cheap one I might add) and is checked in for a flight, he should not have to depend on luck for getting through on a phone or computer for rescheduling. That was Jetblues doing not the polar vortex.