Is JetBlue taking a completely different approach to eliminating change fees?

Sep 10, 2020

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Of the major U.S. airlines, JetBlue has historically done things differently.

Consider the onboard experience. All flyers are treated to plush leather seats, live DirecTV, free Wi-Fi, plenty of legroom and an unlimited selection of brand-name snacks (pre-pandemic, of course). JetBlue’s business-class offering, Mint, revolutionized the premium transcon market and totally disrupted the legacy pricing model.

And now, in response to most major U.S. airlines permanently eliminating change fees, JetBlue appears to be taking a different approach too.

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The origins of the no-change-fee policies

When the pandemic came stateside, airlines quickly realized that customers were unsure of what the future would hold. In February, JetBlue became the first U.S. carrier to temporarily suspend change and cancel fees for new bookings.

Carriers quickly realized that the pandemic was more serious than originally imagined. They soon added existing bookings to the temporary change-fee waivers.

When first introduced, these limited-time waivers only covered a few weeks of travel dates. Over the course of the last seven months, airlines realized that things weren’t getting better. As such, they’ve updated the eligible travel dates countless times.

This months-long process culminated in United’s industry-jolting news on Aug. 30. The Chicago-based carrier announced that it’s permanently eliminating most change fees for domestic travel. Within 48 hours, the other major U.S. airlines matched. (Southwest, of course, has never charged change fees.)

Except for the ultra-low-cost carriers, JetBlue is the sole major U.S. airline to not announce any permanent adjustments to its change-fee policy.

Related: How airline no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest

JetBlue’s unique approach to change fees

Today, JetBlue revealed it will start flying 24 new leisure-focused routes in a bid to lure travelers onto its jets. As part of the news, the New York-based carrier announced that it’s going to extend its “Go Back and Forth with Confidence” change-fee waiver.

You won’t be charged a change or cancellation fee for any JetBlue flights booked through Feb. 28, 2021. This policy includes all domestic and international destinations, as well as basic economy (Blue Basic) tickets.

What’s interesting is that JetBlue isn’t permanently eliminating change fees. Instead, the carrier offers:

“One of the first carriers to suspend these fees in response to the pandemic, JetBlue strongly believes that this policy serves the needs of its customers and will continue to monitor and assess the need for any changes or additions to the company’s policies across the travel journey.”

For now, JetBlue is breaking with the industry on change fees. Instead of outright eliminating them, the airline continues to extend its generous temporary waiver into the first quarter of 2021. The implication is that the carrier isn’t ready to make sweeping, long-lasting adjustments to its fare structure.

Perhaps the number one perk of TrueBlue Mosaic elite status is waived change fees. If JetBlue goes ahead and permanently ditches these fees, there’s very little reason for customers to push for Mosaic.

JetBlue Mint suite (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

It’s also possible the carrier is taking its time to craft a measured response to its competitors. When Delta first announced updates to the SkyMiles program back in April, there was a rush for other airlines to match. JetBlue took more than a month to announce TrueBlue updates, but it was well worth the wait. The carrier included some lucrative perks like the ability to gift a full year of status to a friend or family member.

Ultimately, JetBlue may not have a choice

Though JetBlue continues to extend its temporary waivers, the carrier could soon feel pressure to adopt a no-change-fee policy.

As part of the carrier’s upcoming strategic partnership with American Airlines, the intention is for the two carriers to codeshare on a slew of New York-focused routes.

When codesharing, airlines often try to align policies as much as possible. Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, recently remarked in an interview with TPG that “given JetBlue’s upcoming partnership with American Airlines, it’s surprising we haven’t heard anything about a no-change-fee policy. JetBlue has no choice but to remain competitive and in line with AA.”

As such, extending the temporary waivers might work for now, but once the partnership begins, Hartevelt expects JetBlue to match. Now the waiting game begins to see if they do.

Related: Here’s how American and JetBlue should team up to reward frequent flyers

What does “permanent” even mean?

Nonetheless, JetBlue might be on to something.

Just because its competitors have all adopted permanent no-change-fee policies doesn’t mean that the pesky $200 surcharges are actually gone for good. While the carriers have changed their policies, there could be a temptation to bring them back down the road if demand again begins to approach record levels seen in 2019.

Harteveldt said it best. “There’s no such thing as permanent in the airline industry.”

JetBlue planes parked at JFK (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The elimination of change fees is a smart move during the uncertainty around the pandemic. Until the industry sees an enduring recovery, airlines are likely to continue to use this policy to generate more bookings and reassure passengers that they can modify their plans if something comes up.

And while the industry’s recovery is expected to take at least a few years, JetBlue doesn’t need to make long-lasting adjustments right now. The airline can wait until it has a better picture of the recovery to see if it actually needs to implement such a policy.

Related: How airlines may choose to make up for those recently eliminated $200 change fees

Bottom line

JetBlue just double-downed on its temporary change-fee waiver. The airline “strongly believes” that this is sufficient for the short term.

However, the upcoming partnership with American might tip JetBlue’s hand and force it to adopt a more permanent policy. But if “permanently eliminating change fees” only means until after the pandemic, then perhaps JetBlue is making the right move by sticking to temporary waivers.

Either way, all eyes are on JetBlue. It may just continue to do things differently.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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