It’s the darling airline of Boston. Or at least it was.
JetBlue Airways has dominated Logan Airport as its biggest carrier for at least a decade. It consistently tops lists ranking the best domestic airlines and charms passengers with low fares and perks like expansive legroom, free WiFi, and unlimited snacks.
But lately, JetBlue’s mounting struggles have come to a head. The airline delayed or canceled over 100 flights last week at Logan alone. On Sunday, Jet Blue canceled 49 flights and 77 more were delayed out of Boston, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks airport traffic. And a visit last Tuesday by chief executive Robin Hayes to debut new nonstop flights to London turned into an apology tour for JetBlue’s recent performance.
Hours later, JetBlue launched a $3.6 billion bid to buy Spirit Airlines and create what would be a behemoth of budget air travel.
All of it seemed like a veer off course for the long-loved company. But is it just a hiccup — a bad week — amid a tough few months? Or is one of the industry’s shining success stories becoming just another airline everyone loves to hate?
Experts are unsure.
Robert W. Mann, an independent industry analyst, said there’s a case to be made that JetBlue is falling behind with time. Much of its fleet dates back to the early 2000s when the airline was founded. Its leadership must confront the growing cost of doing business, Mann added, including renovations and rising labor costs that have long bedeviled legacy rivals like United and American.
Then there are the airline’s operational issues that cause frequent delays and a below-average performance on on-time arrivals, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis in 2021. (The newspaper ranked JetBlue’s performance last out of the eight leading carriers nationally. It’s finished in the bottom three spots since 2017.) Almost 15 percent of the 262,800 completed JetBlue flights last year were delayed 45 minutes or longer, aviation-data platform masFlight found.
Brian Sumers, editor-at-large at the travel industry news site Skift, attributed the delays to JetBlue’s tight geographic focus.
Though its point-to-point flights run across North America, many JetBlue planes loop between New York, Boston, and Florida — all of which regularly see severe weather. By contrast, larger airlines often use a hub model to connect to distant destinations from a major city and have fleets that span the continent.
“When JetBlue hits bad weather, it’s like a domino effect,” Sumers said. “It can take them a long time to come back from that.”
Indeed, JetBlue points to weather for last week’s mishaps.
“Nearly 50 percent of our flights touch Florida,” Haynes told the Globe Tuesday. “And once you’ve had that amount of disruption, you have a number of crews and airplanes out of position.”
But JetBlue passengers — stranded anywhere from Milwaukee to Puerto Rico — said rain can’t be the only hurdle the airline faces.
Several Massachusetts customers interviewed by the Globe said pilots and crew members cited staffing shortages and mechanical issues as the reasons some flights were recently delayed. Many had trouble canceling flights because of errors in JetBlue’s website and phone application, which made it difficult to be properly reimbursed by the airline. Customer service wait times could last five hours on the phone, while online chat assistance took two hours or more. A JetBlue customer support e-mail bounces messages back.
In at least one US airport, the JetBlue help desks were unstaffed, said Manomet resident Kevin Collins.
The airline did not respond to requests for comment.
The delays caused a handful of horror stories: Meredith Cameron, a Boston freelancer, stayed in a San Juan hotel for four nights on her own dime last week before JetBlue rebooked her flight home. Val Cabral booked a last-minute Delta Airlines flight from Providence to Disney World to avoid another JetBlue delay and salvage her vacation. And Devin Fisher missed her cousin’s rehearsal dinner in the Bahamas because of JetBlue.
“I have traveled on planes at least once a year since before I could talk, including many JetBlue flights,” Fisher added in an e-mail. “Now I’m wary of ever taking them again.”
@JetBlue from first to worse. As a former long time Mosaic customer you have succeeded in converting me to a @Delta customer! Two cancelled flights on consecutive days (one with a 6+ hour delay before you cancelled) holding us all hostage at the gate. 3+ hour wait on phone. ✌️— Kevin Collins (@BC_Radio_Kevin) April 3, 2022
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 5,500 JetBlue employees, said the situation boils down to “managerial incompetence.”
“It can’t just be the weather,” he added. “They’re lying about it.”
Samuelsen said the airline does not adequately assess how many crew members are needed — and where — to keep flights running on time. It’s exacerbated by the fact that JetBlue has 600 fewer flight attendants than it needs, according to the union.
That said, nearly every airline is dealing with a dearth of pilots and personnel amid the nationwide labor shortage. But last month, a JetBlue flight was left stranded, with no one there to help passengers disembark, after landing at Worcester Regional Airport due to staffing issues. (The airline intends to hire four new training classes of employees in the near future.)
That’s a sad fate for a beloved business in Boston and beyond.
When JetBlue launched in 2000, it capitalized on the mid-market looking for discount tickets and a relaxed on-board experience, much like Southwest Airlines before it. JetBlue fared well through the post 9/11 slump and the 2008 recession, a trying time for its competitors. It flew smaller planes to airports like Richmond and Austin in order to mine markets that Delta, for example, could not reach. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, JetBlue benefited from its focus on leisure travel, while other carriers saw business travelers — their lifeblood — disappear.
About 10 years ago, JetBlue executives set their sights to grow in Boston, where the airline began service in 2004. Sumers from Skift said the decision to run more planes out of Massachusetts transformed Logan and JetBlue alike.
“The JetBlue success story, especially in Boston, is nothing short of spectacular,” he added. “Before JetBlue moved in there, it was a fragmented market. No airline had a particularly large operation there.”
Now, JetBlue is looking to disrupt the broader airline industry by paying a huge sum for Spirit. The ultra-low cost carrier had announced a merger with Frontier in February — an agreement JetBlue “hopes to throw a wrench in,” said David Slotnick, an airline business reporter at The Points Guy, a travel website.
If accepted by Spirit, the acquisition would make JetBlue the fifth-largest carrier in the country.
Industry analysts said the deal would position JetBlue to expand its flight options and geographic footprint, a step toward mending its operational problems. Hayes told CNBC that he sees the transaction as a way “to turbocharge JetBlue’s organic growth.”
The Justice Department and a group of state attorneys general, including Massachusetts‘ Maura Healey, sued last year to prevent JetBlue from forming the Northeast Alliance, a domestic partnership with American Airlines. The company is likely to face antitrust scrutiny again from federal and state regulators on the Spirit deal.
Critics argue that the two airlines’ models are too different to be compatible, considering that Spirit is known for charging passengers for even the smallest amenities, including carry-on luggage. JetBlue flights, on the other hand, feature benefits like free TV and Dunkin’ coffee.
“Of course, the idea [for JetBlue] is that if you grow the fastest, you turn profits the fastest,” said Mann, the analyst. “You’re the biggest winner.”
But Mann contends that JetBlue is overpaying, just as airlines recover from the grim days of 2020. What it all means for JetBlue — a business that’s losing its handle on the fundamentals even as it tries to buy a rival — is unclear.
“In the end,” Mann asked, “is this all worth it for JetBlue?”