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

  1. Tim Dunn says:

    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 result in overbooked flights but they have developed the processes to manage oversales.

    This is just one more indication that the line between low cost and legacy carriers is becoming increasing blurred and the notion that one type of airline is better than the other is increasingly difficult to argue.

  2. Oliver says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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.

  3. 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 – There may not be a monetary difference between VDB and IDB on JetBlue, but there’s certainly a difference in customer happiness. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a happy IDB, but I’ve never seen an unhappy VDB.

      Interesting about the A321 deliveries. I wonder if it’s better to put an A320 on an A321 Mint route or an A321 with the 200 Core seats? On the one hand, you anger fewer people when you do it on a Mint route. But the people you do anger will be REALLY, REALLY angry since they’ll be downgraded to coach. Not sure if JetBlue has even been doing that, but it’s not good either way.

  4. 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.

  5. JayB says:

    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 how many they expect will really show up and how many will cancel or move to some other flight?

    OK, maybe JetBlue is the most conservative with its bookings, but I can’t imagine that never overbooking would make good business sense. Is anyone outside of JetBlue itself able to show verifable proof of never overbooking?

    • Dav says:

      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 says:

      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 says:

        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 in Northeast, you always have a shot.

    • JayB – What Dave says is correct. If JetBlue has 150 seats, it will not have more than 150 reservations for those seats. Of course if someone cancels, they’ll resell that seat. But the airline does not overbook.

      • WildAZ says:

        That’s great that they matched actual bookings to projected flight capacity for 363 days of a 364 day selling window. If they truely do this much DB’ing and IDB’ing then they did not match actual booking to actual capacity on day 364 of a 364 day selling window, which also happens to be the day when it matters most because that is the day it actually takes off. Just because you didn’t properly forecast your departure capacity and not adjust your overbooking pad properly, does not mean that an airline did not overbook. The whole point of this is to exactly match the number of ticketed passengers at the gate to the exact number of departing seats. IMO, it doesn’t matter if an airline fails in the numerator or the denominator, a fail is a fail. The customer experiences the pain, therefore Jetblue partakes in the action. And further more, if it is happening this much, then the customer needs to know as they are being mislead as and if they book away from “the overbookers”. It’s not a fair marketing practice and it’s, on the margin, harmful to other airlines, who call numerator and denominator events the same thing: “an oversale” or an “overbooking”. Ok, if we wanna call it someing new, then thats fine, but we need to fair to the consumer here. JBlue could say, “we don’t overbook, but we are awful at equipment swap and guage planning”, but IMO they need to say something. The implication is aa customer is thinkging “ahhhh…no overbooking, therefore I cannot be denied boarding, I wont take th XX flight at the same time”. But in reality the XX fllight could experience no DB;s while the Jnlue flight could have DBs and IDB. It;s not the truth. And it’s not fair to the customer.

  6. Matt says:

    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.

    • Matt – I believe they’re still recorded as involuntary, but the airline doesn’t have to pay out the high penalties when that happens. It’s still considered involuntary, as far as I know.

      • Kilroy says:

        Brett,

        Any justification as to why the high penalties wouldn’t apply in this situation? I get that the airline doesn’t “intentionally” cause those situations, but how are they really different from overbooking?

        If the airline is operating from a hot and high airport with loads that are tight for the capabilities of its aircraft, it is deliberately running the risk of bumping pax, just as it does when it overbooks. Same thing for not having enough reserve aircraft or running maintenance or schedules such that dispatch reliability is affected.

        My point being, there are a lot of ways that airlines can cause or mitigate these types of risks, so I don’t understand why they don’t get the usual penalties for involuntary bumps.

        • CF says:

          Kilroy – Well, weight restrictions are not exempt from penalties for airplanes with more than 60 seats. It’s just if an airline has to substitute a smaller airplane. I assume the rationale is to try to prevent creating incentives for airlines to do something unsafe, but I don’t really know. Here’s the wording from DOT:

          * If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn’t required to pay people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints.

          • Charles says:

            Does “smaller plane” also include swapping with the same plane but in a less dense config? UA swapping out the 364 seat domestic 777 for the 344 seat one still sucks for those 20 people. I think UA is being a little more proactive about not overbooking or overselling these flights, but it still happens, especially if the 2-class 763 gets swapped with the 3-class one.

  7. James says:

    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.

  8. Tim Dunn says:

    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. I suspect it is the latter.

  9. rjb says:

    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 says:

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

    • Dave says:

      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.

  10. Howard Miller says:

    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…

  11. TC99 says:

    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” should be done from one of their hub cities where they may have a bunch of planes arriving and some sit for hours at a time before being used for later flights. In the trucking industry, I have moved tractors/trailers and straight trucks from route to route when I had a vehicle go down and was unable to get a replacement rental. Also we have buses/vans moved from one route to another as they start and end shift at different times. We try to keep them on the same route, but if one breaks down, we just do a rolling dispatch until the vehicle is repaired.

    • CF says:

      TC99 – I don’t believe route-level bumping information is made available, but you could dig into the deep, dark bowels of the government data and see if it’s buried there somewhere.

      As for the swaps, it’s important to remember that this still isn’t a huge number in the scheme of things. It’s about 14 people a day in the third quarter. Since some people probably volunteer when this happens, it’s maybe 2 flights a week at most, probably less. So it’s still pretty infrequent and these last minute swaps can occur.

  12. Charles says:

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

  13. ptahcha says:

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

    • Kilroy says:

      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 don’t go smoothly and the schedule isn’t padded.

  14. Adrian in NZ says:

    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 SYD, arriving in SYD 1 day later with US$500 UA flight credit per passenger, overnight accommodation, transfers, dinner and breakfast. I didn’t accept this, but after a while, a second VDB announcement came out as they were still overbooked. At that time, I thought they might be able to put me on UA business class to SFO-NRT and from there on NZ direct NRT-AKL, as it’s all Star Alliance. I suggested this to the ground staff and arrangements were duly made.

    From there, the experience was not good. The hotel shuttle didn’t come for a long time. When I got to the hotel, the restaurant for which I had been given a dinner voucher was closed. There were no convenience stores anywhere nearby so I had to rely on a vending machine for a “dinner” of candy. Flying via NRT to AKL the next day was one of the most painful flight experiences of my life. Flying from the US to Australia/New Zealand is a long flight anyway. Going via North Asia is diabolical. In addition, the leg-room on the NZ flight from NRT-AKL in a 767-300 was dreadful. I also never got to use the flight credit because at that time UA did not fly to AKL and I did not return to the US before the credit expired.

    VDB might be fine when there is another flight to your destination in a few hours. For long-haul international where there are much fewer flights and you have to be significantly rerouted, it’s horrible. I think airlines shouldn’t overbook long haul international too much because alternatives in case of overbooking are more ugly and the chance of people not turning up for the flight is much lower.

    • CF says:

      Adrian – But ultimately it was your choice. You might have regretted it, but others don’t mind the pain to save some money. And you can’t blame the airline for your decision to accept what they offered. I’m sure some have buyer’s remorse, but that just means they won’t volunteer next time. As long as people keep volunteering, then airlines will keep overbooking.

      • Adrian in NZ says:

        Absolutely, it was my choice – I don’t blame the airline. I probably wouldn’t do it again on longhaul though.

  15. WildAZ says:

    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 at many airlines. When this happens on a Delta flight, it is called and over-sale or an overbooked flight due to capacity reduction. In this situation, the airline (Jetblue, Air France, Yeti Airline, doesn’t matter) accepted more bookings that the capacity that ultimately flew. Same for AA. Same UA. Same for JetBlue. does oversell flights and he just said that in the article.
    2. There is no way that when they accept a large group booking for every single seat on flight that departs December 23rd (Christmas Travel Period), say, 180 days before departure , where JetBlue doesn’t ask for payment or passenger names, where the historically average of these type of speculative bookings cancel at a rate of xx% within 30 days of booking, that an analyst would leave that flight in a “not for sale position”. She wold simple add a few seats know that with certainty xx% of these booking wont be on my plane 170 days before it departs, so I’m not gonna deny a customer the chance to go home for Christmas on this flight just because I have it booked to capacity. It would be bad for that person trying to get home who just happens to want to book right after this group and bad for the airline if this passenger has to take her 2nd option and gives her money to some other airline. Lose-Lose: Customer takes suboptiamal flight, airline gives away money to competition. That’s overbooking. JetBlue wants their customers to be presented with their optimal flight option for customer service and revenue benefits. JetBlue Overbooks.
    3. By definition, if you deny boarding to a passenger because, at the time of departure, more people have presented themselves at the gate with revenue reservations than you have seats for, then you are an airline that overbooks. Jetblue had > 0 Denied Boardings, therefore JetBlue overbooks. By definition JetBlue overbooks and therefore should not be allowed to marketing themselves as an airline that does not overbook. If you can experience pain (i.e. denied boarding) as a result of a cause (overbooked). Then you do actually partake in the action that is responsible for the pain. I am sure there are people who actually make travel decisions based on this false statement (i.e “lie”). Because in theory and absolute terms, a customer could think, “well they don’t overbook like airline ZZ, so I will give JetBlue my money instead of Airline ZZ because I will always get a seat and cannot be denied boarding”. We all know that it is possible to be denied boarding on JBlue, so there for it is impossible for them to say, “we don’t overbook”.

    How long has this airline been turning in those reports to the DOT? From day one! It’s crazy to me that someone at DOT or FTC hasn’t said, “this is not possible. you can no longer market this way.”. I mean if consumer behavior is changed (i.e. book jet blue with the thought that I can never be denied boarding), then some watchdog needs to tell em to stop. If they aren’t gonna stop saying it themselves. It doesn’t matter if a baby puked on three seats and then you gotta remove em from capacity (dont let people sit in them) for the next flight or if you take a calculated risk by adding one seat to the aircraft’s selling capacity knowing that with 99.999995% certainty at least 1 person will not arrive for this flight, or even if an airline has a group tied up at security and just misses the original flight which results in an oversold next flight with denied boarding. The airline didn’t match it’s actual departure capacity to its actual departure fare-paying passengers. This is an overbooked flight. JetBlue overbooks their departure aircraft. FULL STOP. And the kicker is that they apparently overbook with much less precision than a lot of the other carriers. There is subtle smugness in this message for which some passengers are duped and feel pain. The fact that no one calls them on it, is pretty lame. I don’t fly jetblue but I would be seriously upset if I were denied boarding and jetblue marketed to me the impossibility of that event. In fact I would call th DOT or FTC and say, “this cannot be allowed.”

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