Why Winter-Travel Havoc Hurts More at JetBlue

When winter weather blows into an airline operation, few are smacked as hard as JetBlue Airways. The carrier took the unusual step of halting flights in Boston and the three main New York City-area airports on Monday in an attempt to recover from a three-day snarl caused by the polar vortex. Other airlines also struggled with delays and cancelations from snow, airport closures, and a deep freeze that paralyzed ground equipment, but no other airline took the same step.

Because of its heavy concentration of flights from New York’s JFK International and Boston’s Logan airports, JetBlue is disproportionately exposed to the kind of havoc that weather periodically wreaks during winter. Roughly 40 percent of the Queens-based airline’s nearly 900 daily flights take off from Boston and New York, and some 80 percent of all JetBlue’s daily flights involve an airport in the Northeast.

JetBlue completed only 49 percent of its Monday flights, canceling about half its schedule. Some 1,800 JetBlue flights have been canceled since Jan. 2, affecting about 150,000 passengers. JetBlue added 25 extra flights today to help people get home, mostly in the Caribbean.

The airline has acknowledged that some of its previous weather-related struggles have been of its own making. “The JetBlue of the past challenged the weather and tried to operate through it,” Rob Maruster, the airline’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “The JetBlue of the current gets out of the way of the weather, but the environment that we operate in particularly here in New York and also in Boston, just with the situation of the airport being right on the ocean … exposes us to a lot of things in a very magnified way than other carriers are exposed to.”

Amid winter weather problems, the airline’s smaller size also works against it. Its hubs in Boston, New York-JFK, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., don’t work to feed traffic the same as the traditional network carrier hubs, leaving JetBlue with fewer options to funnel travelers around weather to their destinations. “They don’t have other hubs to reroute people,” says Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker. “So for them the problem gets exacerbated.”

And when the airline is forced to cancel a flight after its scheduled departure time—as it has hundreds of times since Jan. 3—an airplane and its crew is left in the wrong place, further snarling the operation. That’s the main reason JetBlue imposed the unusual 17-hour hiatus that ended at 10 a.m. yesterday.

Still, JetBlue is hardly alone in feeling the pain of the polar vortex. Nasty winter weather over the past week has cost U.S. airlines and travelers more than $1.4 billion, according to masFlight, an analytics company that tracks airline operations. Its estimate is based on a cost to airlines of $4,690 per hour for delays and cancellations and a $37.60 cost to passengers. The company says U.S. carriers have seen almost 76,000 delays and more than 19,500 canceled flights so far this year.

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