A traveler holds his forehead while waiting to rebook a canceled JetBlue flight on Jan. 6, 2014, in Boston. / Charles Krupa, AP
On top of snow and below-zero temperatures, snarled airports, crowded planes and new pilot-rest rules, JetBlue Airways threw passengers another curve this week when it shut down Northeast flights for 17 hours citing the safety of crews and planes.
Now the low-cost carrier continues to dig out from the barrage of criticism with extra compensation for 150,000 passengers whose flights were canceled during the last week and extra flights to retrieve those stranded.
"Every operational decision we made specifically to cancel flights despite the number of customers in the airport was made for safety reasons, but the inconvenience to our customers was still significant," said Rob Maruster, JetBlue's chief operating officer.
Flight disruptions resulted from a snowstorm straddling the Midwest and Northeast Jan. 2-3 and then frigid cold with some more snow across the region Jan. 5-7.
JetBlue's strategy changed from trying to continue flying during bad weather to canceling flights ahead of time to reduce the number of stranded travelers at airports.
"The JetBlue of the past tried to challenge weather and operate through it," Maruster said. "The JetBlue of the current gets out of the way of the weather."
The strategy - resulting in cancellations, long waits for answers and trouble getting on another flight - wasn't popular with travelers, based on angry social media posts on Wednesday. Billie Seet posted on Facebook about losing a trip home to visit family because a cancellation that "pulled the rug out from under me."
On Tuesday, the airline announced 25 extra flights - mostly to the Caribbean - to help return passengers from holiday travel.And it is offering $50 credits for new tickets for each canceled flight, up to four cancellations, during the troubled week.
"This event requires additional apologies and compensation," Maruster said.
The week will be expensive across the board, although Maruster said JetBlue hasn't totaled its losses yet. Canceled and delayed flights from Jan. 2 through 6 cost airlines and passengers $1.4 billion, based on costs from airlines and federal sources, according to masFlight, a company that analyzes flight operations worldwide.
Robert Mann, an industry consultant and former airline executive at R.W. Mann and Co., said disruptions were predictable from harsh weather and a new FAA rule requiring more pilot rest between shifts. Other airlines could handle the rule by canceling mostly regional flights affecting fewer passengers each time, but JetBlue doesn't have that option, he said.
"JetBlue made a transparent attempt to help, even though they will probably take the hit for taking that approach," Mann said.
The flight disruptions for all airlines resulted from a confluence of challenges:
â?¢ Major hubs. Harsh weather hit some of the country's busiest airports, including Chicago's O'Hare, the three New York-area airports and Boston's Logan.
â?¢ Crowded planes. Planes were stuffed with travelers returning home after the holidays, averaging nearly 90% full. When a flight is canceled, those passengers must be spread among few available slots.
â?¢ Busy airports. Blowing snow reduced visibility to near zero at times, with Boston's Logan Airport suspending operations the night of Jan. 2 and New York's JFK Airport closing its runways for four hours Jan. 3.
â?¢ Extreme cold. Temperatures in single digits, with wind chill below zero, jelled jet fuel in Chicago, froze de-icing fluid at several airports and hindered chemicals from melting snow.
â?¢ Pilot fatigue. A federal rule went into effect Jan. 4 that essentially requires greater pilot rest between shifts. While airlines prepared for the change for two years and hired more pilots, the rule leaves airlines less flexibility to see whether a delayed flight can take off.
"It would have been a miracle if the airlines had been able to operate more smoothly," said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation expert at Hudson Crossing.
Airlines and airports struggled even if they were prepared for the storm.
Indianapolis International Airport bought nine pieces of snow-moving equipment for $5.5 million last summer. As snow fell an inch an hour, crews pushed the snow far enough off the pavement to avoid plane wingtips and cleared runway lights with temperatures at 14 degrees below zero and a 40-below wind chill.
"Everything is orchestrated out there," said Michael Medvescek, senior director of operations. "I call it synchronized swimming."
Maruster of JetBlue warned that the pilot-fatigue rule could lead to more cancellations ahead of future bad weather because it reduces flexibility in getting delays off the ground.
"The old pilot rules were somewhat more forgiving," Maruster said. "I think right now with the new pilot rules, it will probably mean more cancellations" during significant weather delays.
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