JetBlue Adds Trips to Fetch Fliers as NYC Shutdown Ends

JetBlue Airways Corp. added 25 extra flights today to help rescue passengers stranded as far away as South America after winter-weather disruptions forced a temporary suspension of service at four U.S. airports.

The carrier resumed operations this afternoon at New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty and Boston Logan, after canceling 1,800 flights since Jan. 2, affecting 150,000 customers. A Jan. 4 change in pilot rest rules was a “complicating factor,” and not a cause of the groundings, the airline said.

JetBlue’s 17-hour shutdown that began yesterday was designed to buy time to get jets and crews into place after storms lashed the Northeast U.S. and then Chicago. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s decision to shut Kennedy for four hours on Jan. 3, and three subsequent shorter closures, set off delays the airline could not recover from, Chief Operating Officer Rob Maruster said today.

“On the front end, it was all weather,” he said on a conference call. “Then it started to get into this fuzzy line where it’s no longer weather, it’s the complexity of significantly delayed flights. You can only operate with so much delay.”

The carrier “absolutely” did the right thing in suspending flights at the four airports, he said, and should be back to a normal operation tomorrow. All customers should be rebooked by Thursday.

Marooned Travelers

“I’m not sure how much of it is poor operational performance versus the fact they have such a big concentration” of flights in the Northeast, said Savanthi Syth, a Raymond James Financial Inc. analyst in St. Petersburg, Florida. “From a customer standpoint, it doesn’t look good.”

JetBlue’s extra flights were targeted at airports that had the greatest number of marooned travelers, Anders Lindstrom, a spokesman, said in an interview. The shutdown in the Northeast began at 5 p.m. New York time yesterday and lifted at 10 a.m. today.

JetBlue posted compensation plans for idled passengers on its blog today, offering travel vouchers and extra awards in the carrier’s loyalty program, separate from opportunities under its customer bill of rights. JetBlue expects to have all travelers “at their final destination in the next few days,” Lindstrom said.

JetBlue rose 0.23 percent to $8.68 in New York. Yesterday’s 4.3 percent decline was the deepest since April.

Airlines scrubbed more than 2,500 U.S. flights today, including 226 for JetBlue, according to industry data tracker That was 28 percent of the day’s schedule for the carrier, the fifth-biggest in the U.S. by traffic.

Northeast Focus

JetBlue is the biggest domestic carrier by passengers at both Kennedy and Logan airports, based on data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. About 80 percent of its flights touch New York, Maruster said today.

“We own it in terms of the results to our customers, and we have to make it right by them,” he said.

The travel disruptions probably will evoke memories of JetBlue’s six-day effort to recover from an ice storm on Feb. 14, 2007, said Bob Mann, president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York. Planes were grounded across the airline’s network, stranding fliers on jets and in terminals for as long as 10 hours.

Pilot Hours

JetBlue faced no pilot shortage and was prepared for a new Federal Aviation Administration rule that took effect for all airlines at midnight Jan. 4 governing pilot work hours, Maruster said.

The change, in some cases, reduced hours pilots could work per day in an attempt to limit fatigue, trimming maximum hours from as much as 16 to between 9 and 14. Pilots flying late at night, crossing multiple time zones or making numerous takeoffs and landings were restricted the most. At the same time, airlines were given latitude to extend the hours a pilot may be at the controls per day from 8 hours to as many as 9.

The airline last September sought a waiver on implementing the change as scheduled because it was concerned about the potential for problems during a heavy travel period that already could be complicated by winter storms, Maruster said. The request was denied.

“We were fully prepared and had been preparing for implementation on Jan. 4, 2014,” he said, calling the new standards “the biggest pilot work rule change our industry has seen in our lifetimes.”

JetBlue pilot work schedules that began Jan. 1 reflected the new rules, Maruster said.

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