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, 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.