JetBlue scraps change and cancellation fees because of coronavirus in a US first

Key Points
  • JetBlue's surprise move lifts change fees for travelers booked through March 11. 
  • The airline is the first U.S. carrier to make the move and will put pressure on others to follow suit.
  • JetBlue doesn't have any service to China and South Korea, where carriers have already issued waivers.
JetBlue's new Airbus A321neo at New York's Kennedy Airport.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

JetBlue Airways in a surprise move Wednesday became the first U.S. carrier to cut its change and cancellation fees for travelers concerned about the coronavirus.

The budget carrier's unusual measure, which could pressure other airlines to follow suit, comes during steep drop in airline stocks as investors fret over the spread of the virus, known at COVID-19, to the U.S., following warnings from health officials. 

Airline shares have suffered more than the broader market's rout. The NYSE Arca Airline Index, which tracks 16 airlines in the U.S., Canada, Latin America along with budget European airline Ryanair, is down more than 15% this week, on track for its biggest weekly drop since 2009.

JetBlue, serves the U.S. and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean unlike its larger U.S. competitors that fly to China, where most of the more than 81,000 coronavirus cases have been reported.

"While authorities have not issued any travel restrictions to the locations we fly, we want to give our customers some peace of mind that we are ready to support them should the situation change," Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's president and chief operating officer said in a news release.

JetBlue said the suspension of change and cancellation fees, which can reach $200, would apply for new bookings made on Thursday through March 11 and for trips that would end June 1.

"The policy is designed to give customers confidence that they will not be charged any JetBlue fees for changes or cancellations later given evolving coronavirus concerns," the company said.

Airlines around the world have canceled hundreds of thousands of flights because of the virus, most of them China flights. United, American and Delta have suspended service to mainland China and Hong Kong, and lifted change fees for South Korea flights.

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