It pays to be a member of the airline loyalty program in many ways, some more subtle than others. In the case of JetBlue‘s TrueBlue program, that benefit comes in the form of better compensation offers for some passengers affected by canceled flights over the past week thanks to the severe weather affecting their hub operations in New York City and Boston. Going above and beyond their Customer Bill of Rights (under which most customers would not be due any compensation as they were not caused by “controllable irregularities”) the carrier has announced a compensation plan for the 150,000 passengers affected in one way or another by the more than 1,800 flights the carrier canceled over the past 5 days. The compensation is being offered on a sliding scale; those who faced multiple cancellations will receive more from the company. And TrueBlue members affected by multiple cancelations will get bonus points plus the cash/travel cert credit:
JetBlue is also offering reimbursement on some expenses incurred by passengers on a case-by-case basis:
Customers who incurred out-of-pocket expenses between January 3 – January 10 as a direct result of cancellations will be reviewed and taken into consideration for reimbursement. Customers may submit their receipts and request for review to Hercules@jetblue.com. Only submissions with receipts will be considered for reimbursement and all submissions must be made by January 31, 2014. Customers who have already submitted requests via jetblue.com/contact-us will be contacted by a crewmember and do not need to resubmit.
In addition to the compensation being offered JetBlue also offered some insight this afternoon in to what exactly went wrong and why they were faced with so many affected customers and problems. COO Rob Maruster addressed the media this afternoon, providing some back-story into the situation and what operations decisions were made along the way which resulted in the current situation. Among the issues JetBlue faced, Maruster highlighted the closure of JFK on the morning of Friday, January 3, 2014 for snow removal as a major contributing factor. Rather than having the airport open at 8:30am with at least one runway open throughout the night (as previously expected) JetBlue saw the field completely closed from 6-10am. Or, as Maruster phrased it, “What we did not plan for and what we did not prepare for … was a 4 hour shutdown at JFK on Friday morning.” That closure caused planes to be out of position for 5-6 hours.
And things went downhill from there. Additional closures of JFK on Sunday caused further backlogs and the carrier was struggling to get back to normal operations. Eventually, with the polar vortex storm bearing down on the NYC area and knowing it would cause further issues, the carrier made the decision to cease nearly all flights in the area for 17 hours, essentially resetting the operation and letting them get back on or near schedule.
Running at high load factors and peak travel levels (meaning more flights so fewer spare aircraft or crews) leaves very little slack in the system for disruption. Maruster noted, “Before the storms we were already booked 90% full. We had very few rebooking options…that’s very frustrating for a customer.” The carrier has since added a number of extra flights to affected airports in an effort to get passengers back to where they want to be. Many of the extra sections will serve Caribbean island destinations where a single canceled flight can have repercussions lasting many days and where accommodations are harder to come by. Barbados, Grand Cayman, St. Maarten and Punta Cana will all see extra service this week. One complicating factor in the recovery is that JetBlue does not necessarily know how many passengers are still stuck versus how many found other means to their final destination.
Finally, JetBlue mentioned the new FAA rules about pilot rest and the impact on their operations over the weekend. While they do not attribute the scale of there issues to the new pilot rules they do mention that there was some impact, specifically compounding the delays related to the JFK closures on Sunday as, “The old pilot rules were somewhat more forgiving in terms of how much delay you can operate with.” That’s not to say the new rules are bad, but they are presenting more challenges for the carrier in the transition period.
One concern oft raised about JetBlue (and similarly about Southwest) is that they do not work with other airlines when flights are canceled to help accommodate affected passengers. Maruster directly addressed that issue when asked about it, though the answer was less than spectacular. He suggested that the high loads on all airlines were such that even if the agreements existed the passengers mostly would have been stuck, “Everybody is full this time of year; it is tough for everyone to rebook and move customers.” And in many ways that’s very true. Many passengers on other airlines were affected and unable to rebook on reasonable routings; some still would require many days to handle the impact of the cancellations. And with 150,000 affected passengers it is hard to think that dropping that number 2-3% is enough to really matter in the big picture. Still, for those few thousand customers it would’ve been pretty nice to not be stuck, even with the compensation being offered.