Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The JetBlue Blues

JetBlue’s mid-February operational meltdown presented a public relations challenge that founder and CEO David Neeleman handled masterfully.

For anyone left in the U.S. who is unaware of the story: an ice storm on Valentine’s Day grounded nine JetBlue planes at JFK International Airport, stranding hundreds of passengers for up to ten hours on the tarmac … and delaying thousands of others. The lean organization — that had enabled the airline to keep its fares low — collapsed under the strain. In all, JetBlue canceled nearly 1,100 flights between February 14 and 19 … about a third of the total.

Neeleman apologized in e-mails, in media interviews, on JetBlue’s website, on a YouTube video … even on Late Night with David Letterman. He said he was “sorry and embarrassed” by the problems and announced a “Customer Bill of Rights” that included penalties to be paid immediately – and going forward -- by JetBlue to all passengers inconvenienced by the airline’s mistakes.

Neeleman also delivered an apology to the folks who worked for him.

“Our crew members didn’t fail us, we failed them and it caused a tremendous hardship on them,” he said, and vowed to provide more tools and resources for JetBlue crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties, including an overwhelmed crew communications system and an understaffed reservations system.

That’s the rub.

While I applaud JetBlue’s CEO for stepping up to the plate, apologizing and outlining the actions that will be taken to ensure that these problems don’t recur, I can’t help being concerned. According to Newsweek, JetBlue lost a combined $21 million in 2005 and 2006; of course, the whole industry is down (scroll down to the bottom of the page). It’s been reported that the airline issued $10 million in refunds and $16 million in credits to passengers and had $4 million in incremental expenses, such as overtime and costs for chartered aircraft as a result of the February fiasco.

How does a low-fare airline handle the financial burden that comes with an upgrade to its low-cost operating structure?

Then there’s the whole issue of passenger safety … and that’s obviously not just a PR issue; it’s an operational issue. At this point, I don’t feel as safe with JetBlue as I did before (based on my ignorance of its thin infrastructure)… at least not until the airline’s infrastructure problems are all sorted out. After all, I don’t care as much about cheerful flight attendants and in-flight TV as getting where I’m going … on time … and in one piece!

From a PR standpoint, I would have a better feeling if Neeleman stated a near-term target date when the infrastructure challenges (extensive hiring, training and systems work) will be met, and if he conveyed a sense of urgency about the work to be done, not unlike the U.S. mobilization in World War II. Further, I’d like to know how he intends to convert JetBlue into a profitable enterprise.

Technorati Tags: JetBlue, David Neeleman, JFK, YouTube, David Letterman, Customer Bill of Rights, airline industry, public relations, business, communications,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before long, jetBlue is going to find itself in a collective bargaining meeting with an airline union(s). They may have nice planes, but they treat their employees like dirt. They play up the removing of 6 seats (an entire row) to give their customers "more leg room" when in fact it is to reduce the number of flight attendants required to work a flight (layoffs are eminent). FAA stipulates that there must be one flight attendant for every 50 passangers. So, they have already started to make their cut backs in reducing the amount of employees it takes to run the airline. I guess it's cheaper to pay unemployment....

Monday, April 09, 2007 3:39:00 PM  

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