When Gail Murphy reserved a JetBlue flight from Burlington, Vt., to Orlando last March, she thought she could bring a carry-on bag with her at no extra cost. The reason: JetBlue said so.
She thought wrong.
Murphy had to shell out another $35 for her rollaboard because, in her words, “JetBlue lied.” And after reviewing her case, I think she may be right.
But this isn’t the kind of bald-faced lie that it sounds like. Instead, it’s a complicated — but equally maddening — form of lying by omission. It’s the kind of lie I find reprehensible and inexcusable. I’ll explain why in just a moment.
Murphy’s story is important for several reasons. It’s a case study in deception, even if the deception may have been unintentional. It also highlights a common problem in the advocacy world, which is that while companies rarely out-and-out lie to their customers, there’s plenty of misdirection.
More importantly, it’s a necessary reminder that you have to follow your instincts when you feel you’ve been ripped off. Don’t stop trying until you get a fair resolution.
Before I continue, I want to encourage you to share your stories of being misled by an airline or any other business. Scroll down to share your thoughts. I’ll be reading. The most upvoted comment will get a free one-year subscription to my new premium newsletter, Elliott Confidential.
Here’s what JetBlue told Murphy about its carry-on baggage policy
Murphy paid $412 to fly from Burlington to Orlando with a stopover at JFK on July 13. She flew home on July 26.
The dates are critical, as you’ll see in a moment.
When she made her reservations, the terms on the fare were clear:
Bags: One (1) carry-on, one (1) personal item.
“Since I never check a bag, all I ever carry is a small rollaboard which fits above and a purse under the seat,” she told me.
And everything went fine on her trip from Vermont to Florida.
Then, on her return …
“Imagine my surprise when two days before I leave to come home, I received a message from JetBlue that carry-on baggage is no longer allowed with my particular price point and will incur a fee,” she says. “Without any prior warning, this new rule has extorted a fee for a checked bag.”
This is the message:
To help keep surprises off the itinerary, we wanted to remind you that your upcoming flight to Burlington was booked on a Blue Basic fare, which has a few differences from our other fares.
It does not allow a carry-on bag that goes in the overhead bin. Carry-on bags brought to the gate will need to be checked and will incur a fee of at least $65. You are permitted one personal item that fits under the seat in front of you. Plan on bringing more? You can add up to two (2) checked bags in advance, and save $5 per bag if you purchase them prior to check in.
But no worries — passengers could reduce the fee to just $35 if they paid in advance.
JetBlue: Pay up now
Murphy was baffled by the new fee. And upset.
“How is this even legal?” she asks. “It came out of the blue and was a complete surprise. This was not a ‘reminder’ since it was never stated anywhere or anytime since I bought the ticket.”
Murphy paid the $35. She felt she had no choice.
But she also complained, sending several messages through the JetBlue site before and after her return flight.
“In the meantime, let me be clear,” she added. “JetBlue has extorted me.”
Can JetBlue change its carry-on baggage policy out of the blue?
Here’s what happened: On Feb. 16, JetBlue quietly changed its carry-on baggage policy for its “Blue Basic” and “Blue” fares. “Blue Basic” is JetBlue’s “ultra-low-cost fare,” a la Spirit Airlines, that does not allow a carry-on bag. It does, however, allow changes and cancellations for a fee.
JetBlue encourages “Blue Basic” customers with a carry-on bag to check it at the ticket counter for a $35 fee. But if you don’t, you’ll have to pay $65 to check it at the gate.
I asked JetBlue about the timing of the new baggage fee on Murphy’s ticket.
“Customers who booked a split itinerary where their outbound travel was before July 20, and their return travel was after July 20 were notified during the booking process that their return travel did not allow a carry-on bag,” explained JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski. “However, customers received confirmation emails at the time of booking that only included the carry-on bag policy for their outbound travel and, given this error, we have been updating those reservations to ensure a bag is allowed for their return travel.”
There it is — lying by omission.
JetBlue changed its policy with little fanfare and then failed to notify all of its customers.
Oops. And, by the way, it’s not the only time JetBlue has made a sudden policy; impacting passengers (and pets) mid-trip.
Did JetBlue do the right thing?
So what’s going on? I circled back with Murphy to find out if JetBlue had updated her reservation to ensure a carry-on bag was allowed for her return trip.
It had not.
“They lied,” she says.
Murphy reviewed her itinerary with me again. She’d made her reservation on March 25. At the time, the rules clearly stated that she was allowed one carry-on and one personal item.
I logged into the JetBlue site and looked at her reservation. Here’s what I found under her luggage restrictions:
Are you serious?
If I were running JetBlue, I would have a large, boldface, highlighted headline that says, “YOU WILL HAVE TO PAY A FEE FOR YOUR CARRY-ON BAG.” But saying checked bags are “subject to additional fees” is not the way to tell someone like Murphy that her carry-on bag can’t fly.
JetBlue blew it with this new carry-on baggage policy
I asked Dombrowski to check on Murphy’s itinerary. Is it possible that JetBlue failed to notify her about its new carry-on baggage policy, and in so doing, blindsided her with a fee?
A JetBlue representative phoned Murphy and apologized for the “confusion.”
“They said I fell through the cracks,” she says. “JetBlue is refunding the checked bag fee.”
Would JetBlue have eventually noticed the error and refunded the baggage fee? Maybe. But Murphy doesn’t think so.
“I doubt they’d have cared one way or another without your intervention,” she says. “I really thank you for your assistance.”
She adds, “What a hassle for such a stupid policy change. It wasn’t like I bought the cheap seat either. ”
She’s right on both counts. Four hundred and twelve dollars is not a bargain fare. JetBlue changed its restrictions to generate more revenue, plain and simple. And forcing people with these fares to pay extra for a carry-on bag is just petty. If JetBlue wants to “bring back humanity” to air travel, as its slogan famously promises, this isn’t the way to do it.
Unfortunately for travelers, I think the airline abandoned its slogan a long time ago.
Can we talk about lying for a minute?
People lie to me every day. Companies lie about their products and services. Consumers lie about their cases. But I’ve experienced a lot more of it in the last few weeks than arguably at any time in my career.
Most of the lies are omissions — important facts left out to foster a misconception.
I can’t be impartial about lies by omission. They are absolutely horrible because they allow someone to tell a lie and at the same time convince themselves that they’ve said something truthful.
In other words, JetBlue can say that it notified customers about the new baggage charges. After all, it made the announcement in February, and maybe it notified some passengers. But not all of them. That’s a key omission.
The question is, was this unintentional — did Murphy’s case fall “through the cracks” — or was it on purpose, a coldhearted ploy to generate some quick incremental revenue?
I think we all know the answer.
What to do when JetBlue lies
When you catch JetBlue, or any other company, lying to you, you have choices. You can roll over and play dead. After all, it’s just $35, right? Well, if enough passengers say, “It’s just $35,” it all adds up soon. That’s money in the bank.
But you can also fight. So here’s my advice.
- Document the lie. Take screenshots, save your emails, record your phone conversations (where legal). Create a watertight case that catches the company in the act. Murphy had all of that information, and when I asked her to compile it into a single email, she quickly did. All I had to do was share it with JetBlue.
- Confront the company about the lie. You can’t rely on a business to fix the problem on its own. Murphy reached out to JetBlue’s customer service contacts, but she could have also gone a step farther. I publish the names, numbers, and email addresses of the JetBlue customer service executives on this site. A brief, polite email would have helped.
- Tell the world. If a business lies and refuses to fix it, you have a powerful megaphone. You can amplify your voice on social media or reach out to my advocacy team. We are always here for you, and we hate being lied to as much as you do.
Murphy could have shrugged off the surcharge and let JetBlue keep her money. But I’m glad she took a principled stand. If more travelers did, then airlines would not get away with these kinds of egregious business practices.
And that wouldn’t happen a moment too soon.
*Looking for more stories from JetBlue passengers? Check this one out: If you take $158,000 on a flight and it goes missing, who pays?