Letter to JetBlue

Disclaimer: This was my first time travelling with JetBlue. I was impressed by many aspects of their service. Travel itself was more comfortable than that of possibly any other domestic airline and had better onboard service. Most of the staff we interacted with, including the ticketing agents in Salt Lake City, were friendly and pleasant. The letter drafted below, already sent both to JetBlue and the USDOT, specifically regards the operational breakdowns of the airline.

I am reeling from the complete systemic meltdown I experienced while flying home this past weekend after attending a family funeral. I have seen the headlines about the nation’s travel industry woes post-Covid. I understand that recovery has been inordinately difficult and, as I grew up the daughter of an airline employee, I am likely more sympathetic to the real struggles the airlines are facing than the average traveler. That said, the utter breakdown I experienced in the processes and procedures of both JetBlue and the John F. Kennedy airport are unaccountable and must be urgently addressed.

While traveling with my husband and five young children (ages 7 months, 2 years, 5, 7, and 9), our connecting flight through JFK was canceled around 2 AM. The cancellation itself is not my biggest concern; I understand that operational and regulatory conditions outside the airline’s control sometimes lead to cancellations. My especial and significant frustrations are these: 

            1. We should have been rebooked as we asked. Around 12:30 PM the afternoon of travel, a couple of hours before we were initially supposed to depart from SLC, it became apparent that delays already affecting our flights were likely to lead to problems late that night of travel. Therefore I asked for, but was not granted, flight reassignments. “I don’t want to spend tonight sleeping on the floor of the JFK airport with my five small children,” I specifically told the ticketing agents in Salt Lake, especially when we had safe and ready accommodation with family in Utah. There would have been no marginal cost to the airline associated with rebooking my family, at clear risk of missing a connection in New York because of the airline’s delays, onto flights into any number of airports the following day.

            2. The airline should have been transparent and not continued to stoke false hopes when cancellation was inevitable. Both legs of our route suffered extensive delays that day and we did not land in New York City until around midnight, where we discovered that our connecting flight was now listed to depart after 3:00 AM. That flight was eventually canceled because the crew ran out of duty time, but not before we had sat at the gate for two hours late into the night with five exhausted and travel-weary children, under reassurances from the gate agents that everything would eventually proceed. I understand how desperately airline management is attempting to prevent flight cancellations where at all possible, but because our own travel depended completely on the arrival of a plane from Savannah, it should have been apparent long before the flight was canceled that the crew was going to meet their shift cap before we could depart. If the flight had been canceled earlier, even as late as midnight, I believe it would have materially improved our experience that night.

            3. As it was, my family was stranded at an extremely late hour with no recourse. That deep into the night there were no hotels, no rental cars, no food, no place to go. Many hotels were not even answering their phones, and none would take reservations at that time. All rental cars were sold out. There was no food, as the terminal restaurants were closed (and there were no food options anyway outside security, where we were shunted to collect our bags and find rebooking agents). There weren’t even other public places open where we might go to regroup. I have flown standby a hundred times in my life and couch surfed Europe, but I have never in my life felt so optionless as I did standing in the baggage claim of JFK’s Terminal 5 at 4 AM with 5 small children who hadn’t slept and hadn’t had a meal since boarding our first flight soon after lunch. 

            4. The timing of the cancellation, as well as the utter insufficiency of the airline and airport to accommodate stranded passengers with lodging, rental cars, and/or food, had placed us in a position where we were genuinely concerned about our physical safety and the safety of our young children. The only hotel we could finally find with rooms available was not in a particularly good part of town and took cash only. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I am very grateful my husband wasn’t mugged on the dark streets of Jamaica carrying $300 in cash at 5 AM as he returned on foot from his hunt for an ATM. I must emphasize, by this point the airline’s cancellation had placed us far beyond the realm of “inconvenience” and impacted our very safety.

            5. Additionally, gross insufficiency and mismanagement of customer service resources made it impossible to rebook quickly. JetBlue agents should have been able to help us know how long, at least, we would need to stay in New York. As soon as the cancellation notice came through our JetBlue app, I ran downstairs to the rebooking line. Rebooking was empty; the agents gone for the night. I was told by an employee to go upstairs to ticketing and wait in the already significant line there instead. Ours was far from the only flight canceled that night and there were hundreds of people waiting for help. For around two hours I waited, and had made it maybe halfway through the line when we were told that the counter was closing to all but those checking bags for upcoming departures. Our line would have to reform (though clearly with no order preference) back downstairs, where the morning shift’s rebooking agents were now arriving. I looked at how long the new line was and thought of the wasted hours I had spent reassuring my exhausted children that the wait would be “not long now.” Now the line had jumbled, and with another several hours of waiting clearly ahead and with the phone lines warning of a 270-minute wait, it became imperative to put rebooking on hold and find a place for my children to sleep. 

(I know ours was not the first night flights had ever been canceled, so I am completely blown away that JetBlue has no current solution to the line relocation problem. There were some very, very angry people in the terminal when we were first asked to move. I myself can think of several ways JetBlue could have handled the line problem differently, so I trust that with application, the creative powers of JetBlue management are sufficient to the task and I strongly recommend they make this a priority.)

            6. Despite everything, there was no accommodation or compensation given. Finally, finally, mid-morning after our cancellation we were able to get through to a JetBlue representative by phone. He informed us that the first flight available to our destination was still two full days away. It took 55 minutes on the phone for him to rebook us on that flight and answer two simple questions: “Could we get any hotel vouchers?” (after much holding the answer was that the airport deals with that, we would have to talk to them - we never did find out where to go or who to talk to to arrange such a thing, despite trying again later that morning at two separate service desks) and “How much would we be refunded if we can find a different way home?” (With no available vehicles large enough at any nearby rental agency to fit our 7-person family and unwilling to spend $1000 per ticket on another airline, we did not take a different way home.)

We are still waiting to hear if we will receive any compensation from the airline for the cancellation, and received no food or accommodation vouchers in the meantime. We spent $2200 on lodging alone, between the initial hotel, where we spent less than six hours total, and the airport hotel where we spent the remaining two nights. This cost does not include the price of food or taxi fares to the first night’s hotel and various rental car agencies.

I wish we could say that at least we had some fun in New York City during our unintended stay. Unfortunately, though this is one thing for which I can’t blame the airline, several members of my family came down with a stomach virus and we quarantined the two days in our hotel rooms. As we had traveled lightly for the funeral, I found myself carefully counting remaining diapers and hand washing clothes in the hotel bathtub with the provided bar of hand soap.

It seems laughable at this point to mention that when it was finally time for our return flight, we arrived at the airport, taxied, then before takeoff returned to the gate to experience yet another flight cancellation due to mechanical errors. There were still no rental cars of any size available; I checked every agency. Thankfully, this time it happened early enough in the day that JetBlue was able to put us on another plane seven hours later. Though we waited after boarding for additional fuel for an extra hour and a half before finally taking off, we did arrive at our home airport late that evening, 10 hours after we were supposed to have landed that day and about 68 hours after we were supposed to have landed initially.

I hardly even know what to ask for at this point. Given that we specifically but unsuccessfully asked to be reassigned when delays began, travel vouchers for our troubles would be the minimum acceptable offering and have the least marginal impact on JetBlue. Monetary compensation for hotel and food would be much appreciated, as our original ticket prices were already exorbitant because of the unexpected nature of the funeral.

I also want my story to be heard, however, so that those responsible can make the changes necessary to prevent such a massive system breakdown. If nothing else, the airlines should be allocating resources to woo talented machine learning engineers to streamline the rebooking and other processes, much of which could therefore be done both agent and line-free. Then, agents and service representatives would be free to work directly with the more vulnerable of their customers, such as the elderly and families with young children and other special needs. I know the data illustrate the industry’s troubles and that management is not oblivious to the current trials of their customers. But sometimes personal anecdotes are needed to lend special weight to general concerns. I hope my own story can carry that weight.

Two of my children asleep in the hotel lobby while my husband searched for an ATM:


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