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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