At JetBlue, a Pattern of Delays

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

JetBlue Airways, which has come under fire for stranding passengers for hours on an icy taxiway last week, ranked among the worst carriers in long waits on tarmacs last year, federal statistics show.

The airline had 294 flights stuck on the ground for at least two hours last year, a rate of nearly 2 flights per 1,000, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. JetBlue ranked second worst of 20 airlines measured by the bureau.

The longest JetBlue delay: 5 hours and 30 minutes for passengers stranded on a Florida taxiway before a flight on June 1. Two other JetBlue flights clocked taxi delays of at least five hours, both on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the carrier's home base.

The New York airport is where hundreds of passengers were marooned by the carrier during an ice storm on Valentine's Day. Some passengers spent up to 10 hours on planes before being rescued by buses that took them to the terminal.

Advocates for a passengers' bill of rights in Congress said last year's statistics show that JetBlue's problems on Valentine's Day and over the holiday weekend weren't isolated.

"It's indicative of a larger problem," said Kate Hanni, who is a leader in the effort to get Congress to pass passenger-related legislation. "It tells me they are not being honest about delays. They keep saying it was an isolated event and they had this stellar track record."

Jenny Dervin, a JetBlue spokeswoman, said the airline was not at fault for the chronic taxi delays last year. In an e-mail, she pointed to congestion at JFK as the culprit.

"Long taxi times may be today's reality" at the airport, she wrote in an e-mail, adding that the carrier hopes that a move to a new terminal will improve the situation next year.

JFK ranked third worst of all airports in taxi delays of at least two hours, the federal data show. JetBlue reported that most of its delays sprang from airport or air-traffic congestion, or from bad weather, according to the federal data.

JetBlue has admitted that it made mistakes last week in trying to get flights out of the airport during an ice storm and that it had a tough time recovering over the weekend. It was forced to cancel about 32 percent of its flights from last Wednesday through Monday, and executives estimate the problems will cost it about $30 million.

Yesterday, to placate angry customers and stave off action in Congress, the airline introduced a customer bill of rights. It will provide customers with flight vouchers for certain types of delays and cancellations, the airline said.

JetBlue officials said the airline was operating at full capacity yesterday.

The airline's on-time performance last year was also lackluster, statistics show.

It ranked 18th of 20 airlines in terms of on-time performance in December, with 35 percent of its flights arriving late or being canceled, according to federal data.

Analysts said the chronic delays and on-time performance statistics showed that JetBlue was suffering growing pains, a problem the airline has acknowledged and tried to repair.

Doug Abbey, an analyst and partner with Velocity Group, said JetBlue sought to set itself apart from its competitors but wound up suffering their same problems. "The blush is off the rose," he said.

The worst airline in terms of taxi delays of at least two hours was Continental Airlines, which had 2.6 such delays per 1,000 flights. A Continental spokesman blamed the delays on congestion at its hub airports in Newark and Houston. Southwest, Alaska and Aloha airlines posted the fewest delays, data show.

Last year, passengers on 36 planes experienced taxi delays of at least five hours, up from 27 in 2005.

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