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JetBlue defends shutdown at four major airports

JetBlue Airways defended its decision to shut down operations at four major airports for 17 hours this week but said it would compensate the most inconvenienced customers

In a conference call with reporters this afternoon, JetBlue’s Chief Operating Officer Rob Maruster said the airline decided to suspend almost all flights to protect its aircraft and personnel from freezing temperatures and potential icy conditions on the ground.

The airline grounded almost all planes at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia, Newark’s Liberty International and Boston’s Logan airports from 5 p.m. Monday until 10 a.m. this morning.

“We absolutely did the right thing because when you’re doing things for safety reasons–for your people and assets and customers–I think we’re doing them the best service possible no matter what the short term pain is,” he said. “I just think we have a safety first mentality here.”

It was the only airline to take such a step. Last week’s snowstorm followed by this week’s freezing temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast forced airlines to cancel about 20,000 flights, wreaking havoc for travelers all across the country during the peak holiday travel season. JetBlue has had to cancel 1,800 flights.

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Most of the New York.-based airline’s flights touch down at the New York and Boston airports. A problem at any of those airports “disproportionately impacts our system,” he said.

Maruster said a series of events and circumstances forced the airline to suspend so many flights.

The trouble began when JFK had to shut down its runways for four hours on Friday morning because of snow and visibility. Then on Sunday, JFK once again shut down runways for two hours after a plane skid into a snowbank.

“What we were not expecting was a four-hour shutdown at JFK on Friday,” he said. “It has a ripple effect not only that day but the next day.”

At the same time, new federal rules went into place requiring pilots to get more sleep in between shifts and to fly a maximum of eight or nine hours. Airlines have had two years to get ready for the new rules.

Airlines have said the restrictions can cause problems when there are delays because a pilot could be required to time out before the plane is ready to take off.

Maruster said the airline wasn’t necessarily opposed to the spirit of the new rules but questioned whether they should have gone into effect during the busy travel season when weather problems tend to arise.

“The old pilot rules were much more forgiving in how much you can operate with delays,” he said.

Maruster said he expected operations to return to normal by tomorrow. The carrier has added flights to areas that have a large number of stranded passengers such as Barbados and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He said about 150,000 customers were affected by the cancellations and delays in some way. JetBlue intends to reach out to those who had multiple cancellations first to apologize and talk about possible compensation. Typically, when delays are caused by weather, airlines are not legally bound to provide much compensation.

On its website, JetBlue says the compensation could be a combination of frequent flier points or a “Customer Good Will” credit towards a future flight.

“We want to get to the most severe cases to let them know what we are going to be doing about it by way of an apology and compensation,” Maruster said.

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