For an Airline That Doesn’t Overbook, JetBlue Sure is Bumping a Lot of Travelers

People love JetBlue, but one thing that people don’t often know (from my experience) is that JetBlue does not overbook its flights. If it has 150 seats onboard, it’s only selling 150 seats. That has generally meant JetBlue almost never has to bump someone. Something has changed as of late, however, and the airline is doing a whole lot more bumping.

Just take a look at the latest Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report, and you’ll see what I mean.

JetBlue Denied Boardings

Just to be clear, someone is bumped when she is checked in and at the gate with sufficient time before departure per the airline rules, but she isn’t allowed to take the flight because there’s no room. A voluntary denied boarding (VDB) is one where the airline offers an incentive, usually a voucher for future travel, and the traveler takes the offer. In general VDBs aren’t an issue, because the passenger is happy, as is the airline. But the bad ones are involuntary denied boardings (IDBs). That’s when there aren’t enough volunteers and the airline has to remove someone from the flight who isn’t willing to be removed. In recent years, penalties for this have increased, and it can now cost an airline in the US over a $1,000 to bump someone involuntarily. In general, the airlines have gotten better at avoiding these, but they do happen.

For the first nine months of last year, JetBlue bumped fewer than 1,300 people, and only 52 of those were involuntary. Chances are, those 52 were due to an inoperative seat, or possibly due to a weight restriction that required putting fewer passengers onboard than seats would allow. It happens, but those numbers are tiny and not a real concern.

Fast forward to the first nine months of this year, and it’s a different story. JetBlue bumped a total of 3,406 people. That might not sound concerning except for the fact that 2,140 of those were involuntary. What’s worse, 1,313 of those IDBs were from the third quarter alone. In that quarter, JetBlue had the second worst rate of IDBs in the industry. So what’s going on?

Well, according to JetBlue, a changing fleet is to blame and not a new policy on overbooking. Per a JetBlue spokesperson…

JetBlue has a long-standing customer-friendly policy to not oversell flights and we remain committed to that policy. The numbers reported to DOT reflect instances where flights scheduled to operate on our growing fleet of A321 aircraft have been down-gauged to smaller A320 aircraft to accommodate needs like unplanned maintenance. In the rare cases where this occurs, we work to limit the impact to customers with auto-rebooking on the next available flight or by adding extra flights to the schedule.

Aha, well that’s interesting. JetBlue’s A321s have 50 more seats than its A320s, and apparently as the A321 fleet grows, the airline ends up having to substitute A320s on some A321 flights. The overall numbers here aren’t huge. If we look at the third quarter, JetBlue averaged involuntarily bumping 14 people a day. But that’s still far beyond what you’d expect from an airline that was averaging 0.2 IDBs per day for the first 9 months of last year.

What’s really strange to me, however, is the ratio of IDBs to VDBs. There are a lot of people who love getting bumped. If you have the flexibility, then it’s fantastic to get some free future travel as well. That’s why you usually see a ton of VDBs. Look at Skywest to get a sense of what I’m talking about. For the first nine months of 2016, Skywest had virtually the same number of IDBs as JetBlue. But while JetBlue had only 1,266 VDBs, Skywest had a whopping 30,796. Or look at Delta with merely 912 IDBs and an incredible 93,354 VDBs. JetBlue’s ratio is very different.

I confirmed that JetBlue is asking for volunteers when an A320 is substituted for an A321, though I’m sure it hasn’t invested in the same kind of technology to encourage volunteering as airlines like Delta have (asking you at check in, offering bidding systems, etc). Still, I can only assume that the real reason for JetBlue having so many IDBs compared to VDBs is that it needs to get a quarter of all people booked on a full A321 to volunteer and that just ain’t happening.

Normally when an airline overbooks, it might need a couple of volunteers. But if you need 50, you’re in serious trouble. Hopefully as JetBlue’s A321 fleet grows, it will dedicated more spares to allow it to stop subbing A320s. But for now, be aware that this kind of thing can happen, especially if you’re booked on a flight scheduled to be flown by an A321.

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35 Comments on "For an Airline That Doesn’t Overbook, JetBlue Sure is Bumping a Lot of Travelers"

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Tim Dunn
Member
another good observation and article. JBLU is still working on the mindset that they don’t bump passengers so they haven’t developed the processes or technology to manage overbookings. What is equally interesting in the chart you reproduced above is that Delta has by far the highest number of voluntary denied boardings but one of the lowest ratios of involuntary DBs. DL has developed systems to solicit for DBs without the commotion at the gate and Delta gate agents work down an overbooked flight very quickly. Of course all of the big 3 on a regular basis do equipment swaps that… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

Why is Skywest (or Expressjet for that matter) shown? Do they A
have any control over the (over-)booking of the flights they operate? Would IMO be a lot more meaningful to allocate their numbers to the major airlines they operate for.

Dan
Guest

Those figures come from a larger report. Airlines of a certain size are obligated to report data; others can do it voluntarily. Yeah, for this data set it makes no sense, but for others it can.

It would be more useful if other regionals reported, but as WA notes, that’s supposed to change in the next couple of years.

WildAZ
Guest

It makes sense. In some cases the smaller carrier does actually take some (or full) revenue risk and they actually do set booking authorization levels, manage capacity , etc . You are generally correct that mainline Revenue Management Group sets the parameters for overbooking that tnen drive the denied boarding numbers, but not always. I think for example OO manages SLC/BTM internally not with DL. Not sure, but it does happen.

Wandering Aramean
Guest

Keep in mind that JetBlue’s comp is generous for both IDB and VDB so as a customer there’s no real difference between the two. But I wouldn’t expect much in the way of spares for the A321 core fleet any time soon; new deliveries are nearly all in Mint layout the next couple years. Also, the Mint aircraft are also seeing an uptick in unplanned maintenance issues from my anecdotal observations.

Dunno if it is a work action or real problems, but if dispatch rates are dropping significantly that’s a big red flag.

Wandering Aramean
Guest

The regionals have no control over booking but are judged on it anyways. It is one of the many stupid things the DoT does. Fortunately that is supposed to be fixed by 2018 IIRC when the regionals will report as part of their mainline carrier operations rather than separate.

WildAZ
Guest

Not in all cases. I know OO does manage some markets completely internally.

jaybru
Member
Maybe I am misreading you, but it seems a real stretch to say that “JetBlue does not overbook its flights,” assuming I understand how the word “overbook” is defined. Like, if they have a 157-seat flight and they book 157 PAX, they will never book another PAX on that flight until one of the 157 cancels or is moved to some other flight? A 158th passenger can only be a replacement booking, not a simple “overbook?” Like, doesn’t every airline have its own very sophisticed forecasting estimater as to any city-pair, any direction, any day, any time, any flight and… Read more »
Dav
Guest

If there are 150 seats on the aircraft, JetBlue will only sell 150 seats. The only way to make a reservation on that flight would be for one of the 150 to cancel or change flights.

Dan
Guest

I did some quick googling, and JetBlue claims that because it mostly flies point to point, its risk of misconnections is low. Also, the type of passenger you carry matters — if you sell fares that heavily penalize people for not showing up, they’re going to show up.

Dan
Guest
I disagree with this comment. JetBlue has a fairly lenient change policy (compared to legacy 3), which may encourage people to make changes and not simply no show. I know for me, I have on multiple occasions ended up with one-way legs on the legacy three that I could not make and for which the fee to cancel was more than the price of the ticket. So why would I cancel. Rather, I hold on to the ticket and hope for a delay or cancellation to get some or all of my money back. Doesn’t work often but in wintertime… Read more »
mattnrsa
Member

I could be wrong but I thought denied boardings resulting from a weight restriction or downgauge are recorded as voluntary, even if the passenger does not want to give up his seat.

It seems counterintuitive but I’ve heard that several times over the years.

James
Guest

Interesting that only two weeks ago DOT fined JetBlue $40,000 for violations their own bill of rights on DOT regulations around properly informing and compensating involuntarily denied boarded customers on international flights.

Tim Dunn
Member
I suspect that JBLU is pushing its Mint fleet to its limits because the Mint product is generating such big financial improvements for it…. but any aircraft has limits and I suspect they are willing to accept the higher DB ratio and some passenger inconvenience in order to improve their financials. The comments above seem to support that view. The 321 Mints are fairly new aircraft…. if they are having increased maintenance issues, it is either because there is equipment on them such as seats that have not been “pressure tested” or they are simply flying the Mint subfleet harder.… Read more »
rjb
Guest

Since JetBlue has low frequncies and does not interline, its tough to get someone to ¬®volulatarily” bump from a flight on Monday when the next availabe seat may be on Wednesday.

Tim Dunn
Member

…which highlights that the legacies have some advantages compared to some low cost carriers due to larger size (network and fleet) and interlining

Dave
Member

True, but my experience is that JetBlue always offers a full refund when a customer is involuntarily bumped (even if it’s something like a weather related cancellation that isn’t JetBlue’s fault). This happened to me last January. I was able to use the refund money to get rebooked on an American flight, since they had more options. This made me more brand-loyal to JetBlue.

Howard Miller
Member

A temporary hiccup due to “growing pains” of integrating the larger capacity A321??? Or early “presenting symptoms” that the slow destruction of jetBlue’s product to make it nearly as awful as the “big 3” legacy carriers’ products is now underway??? We shall see what the answer is to these two (2) questions is before too long…

TC99
Guest
Is there a breakdown on which routes have the highest IDB’s or do we take the airline at it’s word? Someone mentioned International flights, so I wonder how much of it comes from FLL to the Caribbean and South/Central America? How do these equipment changes occur within a short time of boarding and are there other “upgrade” of equipment from A320’s to A321’s? I would think dispatchers should be able to see these change of equipment down gauges far enough in advance to move a plane from one route to another or an earlier flight if necessary as equipment “maintenance”… Read more »
Charles
Member

The only people who like swaps are people who go to swinger’s parties.

ptahcha
Guest

Based on my personal experience, B6 does not handle IRROPs well in general. This is just another data point confirming that fact.

Kilroy
Guest
IRROPS seem to be one area where the big, traditional airlines have an advantage, with more thought out plans and procedures, and perhaps additional reserves of crew and equipment that they can call on. As was pointed out in the comments of the recent post on Frontier’s meltdown in Denver, some of the smaller and (U)LCCs run their networks a bit tighter (in terms of available slack and reserves). Same thing with quick airport turns. Scheduling a plane for only 20 or 30 minutes at the gate is great when things are going smoothly, but not so great when things… Read more »
Adrian in NZ
Guest
As a passenger, I have agreed to a VDB where I was happy at the time, but it didn’t take me long to be unhappy. At the end of a holiday in the US, I was booked in Economy Class on UA for the SFO-SYD flight departing around 2230. My original booking was to fly that sector, stay one night in SYD and then fly on to AKL on NZ. In the lounge, a VDB announcement was made. The offer was to fly UA business class SFO-NRT the next morning and connect from there in economy class on QF to… Read more »
WildAZ
Guest
I just wish some reporter or government bureaucrat had enough brains or courage to challenge those statements. Jet Blue does overbook: 1. Not properly anticipating or forecasting your capacity IS a main driver of overbooked airline flights. This is true for all airlines. When the operations control group dumps an Airbus 319 *with 100 seats) on your lap and pulls off the Airbus 320 (with 130 seats) that you had “marketed and sold” for the last 300 days” just 12 hours before the flight leaves, then you have an Oversold Flight. That exact situation drives a plurality of denied boarding… Read more »
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