JetBlue will allow free changes or cancellations to all airfare booked within the next two weeks, an unprecedented move meant to reassure travelers that may be scared off by the spread of coronavirus.
JetBlue announced the change late Wednesday. The airline doesn't fly anywhere where coronavirus is hitting hard – JetBlue flies mostly within the U.S. and Latin America, and won't begin flying to Europe for another year.
“While there are no current travel restrictions to the locations we fly, customers can book with confidence on jetblue.com and jetbluevacations.com and know that changes or cancellations will be allowed without penalty should the situation change,” JetBlue said in the announcement.
The free change and cancellation policy applies to any bookings made from Thursday, Feb. 27 through March 11 – so long as that travel occurs before June 1, 2020. Both cash bookings and award tickets booked with points are eligible. Canceled flights will get a travel credit for JetBlue.
By giving flyers that option, it could persuade wary travelers to book more tickets rather than stay home for fear that the virus could worsen and ruin their plans. JetBlue's move may spur other major U.S. airlines to follow suit.
More than 82,000 cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins. More than 97% of those cases are from mainland China, but global public health officials are sounding the alarm about the rapid spread of the virus.
South Korea has emerged as a hotspot for the virus, leading Delta to pause flights between Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Seoul-Incheon (ICN) while reducing the number of weekly flights on other routes. Airlines are also waiving change fees for flights into Northern Italy, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of Asia.
Just 60 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. so far. But public health officials warn that it's only a matter of time before that increases.
“It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told CNN.
What JetBlue's Move Means
On the surface, this is a customer-friendly move that other airlines should adopt. And they likely will.
But it also hints at the dark cloud looming over airlines and the travel industry as a whole. With the uncertainty of coronavirus and where it may spread next, airlines clearly fear that it will scare travelers away from flying even within the U.S. And perhaps it already is.
Airlines in Asia are taking a beating, expecting to lose almost $30 million in revenue this year, according to Skift. While the picture isn't so dire in the U.S., that may change as the virus spreads.
It's great to see an airline try to give travelers more flexibility with a constantly evolving situation like this. But this is also clearly a ploy to get travelers to book more tickets at a time when airlines are scared that bookings may crater.