Paul Holmes 26 Feb 2007 // 12:00AM GMT
Anyone who uses air travel with any regularity understands that delays are inevitable, and that in extreme weather conditions passengers can find themselves sitting on the tarmac for a couple of hours, waiting in line as dozens of departing flights queue to use a singe de-icing machine. For the most part, people tolerate these delays, not enjoying them, obviously, but understanding the reasons. But that understanding tends to evaporate after more than 10 hours, the length of time several JetBlue passengers were left stranded inside aircraft at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport during the Valentine’s Day storm.
The nightmare for those passengers lasted almost 11 hours, but for the low-cost airline, it kept getting worse and worse. Over the next week, JetBlue was forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights, a decision that impacted more than 100,000 passengers and severely damaged the carrier’s reputation for customer service.
Over the next few days, JetBlue chief executive David Neeleman turned himself into the most visible businessman in America, taking every available opportunity to apologize for his company’s performance. He declared himself “mortified” and “humiliated” and admitted that the airline has put its customers “through hell.” On a single morning he appeared on CNN’s American Morning, the Today show, Fox and Friends, and Squawk Box to express his regrets.
He turned up on The Late Show with David Letterman, where his host served him peanuts and a Diet Coke—the menu choices available to JetBlue’s imprisoned passengers—before Neeleman ate a large helping of humble pie.
And the crisis recovery culminated, in the middle of last week, with the announcement of a new “passenger bill of rights,” which promises vouchers to fliers who experience delays and could set a new standard for customer service in the industry by going far beyond any statutory requirement to compensate passengers for delays.
So while no-one was prepared to give JetBlue a free pass for the internal communications failures that led to the 10-hour delays that triggered the crisis and exacerbated the airline’s problems over the next week or so, most crisis communications experts gave the airline and its CEO high marks for their response to the crisis.
Criticisms of the airline’s crisis management effort focus on its systems and its culture.
JetBlue had a tradition—one of which it was apparently quite proud—of not canceling flights in circumstances where more cautious rivals might be inclined to take a hit. In most circumstances, that willingness to gamble paid off, but when it didn’t—as it clearly didn’t in the face of an unusually brutal storm—the losses were immense. And those losses were exacerbated by a lack of the basic infrastructure needed to get its crews and planes back into position once the immediate crisis was over.
The airline also failed, in the early stages of the crisis at least, to communicate effectively with passengers. At jetbluehostage.com, a blog started by one of those passengers, there are numerous personal experience stories, almost all of them complaining about the airline’s failure to provide stranded passengers with updated information.
As one passenger explained: “There’s nothing worse than sitting down in a chaotic airport with absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no reliable place to get information from. In situations like these, someone needs to choose a direction, tell everyone what it is, and stick with it.” (The site also links to numerous other blogs and websites, and to several YouTube videos recorded by stranded passengers.)
The early response was “too slow and to inside-out versus outside-in,” says Alan Hilburg, president and CEO of the PN Consulting unit of Porter Novelli. The airline “failed to put on the shoes of its customers,” with the result that the “communication was from JetBlue’s viewpoint, not the feelings of the customers.” The company failed to “remove the emotion as quickly as possible. This only happens when you act outside-in, from the perspective of the victims.”
Over time, some news media began to explain how something like this could happen—although none of the explanations exonerated the airline.
Even smaller airlines such as JetBlue operate more than a hundred of planes, transporting tens of thousands of people daily. When a storm hits, airlines suffer two kinds of delays. The first is a material delay—the physical slowdown caused by harsh conditions, which force people to move more slowly and necessitate the use of de-icing equipment. The second is the air traffic control delay, as weather conditions in one part of the country start to impact air traffic control hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Patrick Smith, a former pilot and now a Salon columnist, explains: “What makes ATC postponements maddening to airlines and passengers alike is their fluidity. They change hour to hour, minute to minute. Typical scenario: A crew is preparing for a departure from Washington to Chicago. Passengers are loaded, the aircraft is fueled, the checklists are complete. Suddenly, owing to a line of thunderheads somewhere above Ohio, there comes word of a ground stop. The pilots are assigned a ‘wheels up’ time… two hours hence. Passengers are asked to disembark.... But then, 15 minutes later, ATC calls back with a revised time: The plane is cleared for departure immediately. Unfortunately, the passengers have all wandered off, to browse in the bookstore or have coffee at Starbucks.
“Once a flight misses its ATC departure window, it usually goes back to the end of the queue and the clock starts again…. So, while nobody enjoys sitting on a taxiway for long periods, keeping everybody together and at the ready often saves time in the long run.”
But even with that explanation, Smith described the JetBlue delays as “abhorrent and inexcusable” and told readers: “If you find it hard to imagine any plausible reason for locking people in a ground-bound plane for 10 hours, so do I, and frankly there isn’t one.”
But as Neeleman began to take control of the situation, the reviews began to improve. His apologies were abject and apparently sincere, and his willingness to stand up in person and take responsibility earned applause. “Most CEOs run away,” Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, told Forbes magazine. “Neeleman took control. He’s everywhere apologizing, and he’s doing more than promised. He’s putting the company’s money where its mouth is.”
Peter Goelz, a senior vice president in O’Neill and Associates and former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, agrees. “The most important thing that he did was apologize, and you don’t often see that from the airlines,” he told the Boston Herald. “The [mainline] carriers tend to have a reputation for arrogance. His apology stopped the bleeding, and I think it kept the overwhelming majority of his loyal customers.”
As a result, “Jet Blue has done something that few companies have succeeded in the midst of a crisis: they have the general sympathy of the public,” says Sam Singer, president of San Francisco-based Singer & Associates. “While JetBlue made a number of mistakes, it was also the victim of exceptionally bad weather, an issue that was out of its control. It has created a solid base of public support for its efforts to make things right after a tremendously embarrassing series of fumbles during bad weather.”
Still, not everyone appreciated Neeleman’s go-it-alone approach. After Neeleman told reporters, after questions about whether he had considered resigning, that he was “uniquely qualified” to deal with such as crisis, Mike Paul, president of MGP Associates and author of the Reputation Doctor blog, called the CEO “full of hubris and inexperience” and suggested that the airline should hire outside public relations counsel to assist with its recovery efforts.
“With all due respect to Mr. Neeleman, in my opinion he is not at all uniquely qualified to handle these crisis issues regarding JetBlue’s damaged reputation,” says Paul. “This is new territory for JetBlue, they have made big mistakes, they have no outside PR counsel on this crisis or past crises and humility at this time is a major tool for rehabilitating a reputation in crisis…. JetBlue needs to hire an excellent PR firm with seasoned crisis public relations and reputation management experience today.”
Neeleman, meanwhile, was explaining his own philosophy on crisis management.
“What I’ve learned about these situations is you come out and explain what happened… and what you’re doing to make sure it never happens again,” he told reporters. “That’s the right thing to do. If you try to hide stuff and twist the truth, you don’t come across as credible. I decided to do this, and no one is telling me what to do.”
And in many cases, his instincts appeared to be spot on. For example, when JetBlue vice president of corporate communications Todd Burke introduced a conference call with reporters to announce the airlines new initiatives, he described it as an “exciting day” for the airline. Neeleman corrected him politely but firmly. “The only thing I disagree with is that it isn’t an exciting day here,” he said. “It’s been a somber week for us, a week of hard-learned lessons. We made a mistake. We should have had contingency plans.”
The bill of rights itself committed the airline to higher standards of customer service, promising that JetBlue customers would be compensated based on the length of the delays, with vouchers ranging from $25 to the full amount of the ticket. If JetBlue cancels a flight within 12 hours of its scheduled departure, customers can ask for a full refund or a voucher. And the airline also promised to deplane all passengers if an aircraft is delayed on the ground for five hours.
Still, Hilburg believes the airline will need to go further. “JetBlue made seven years of deposits into the goodwill bank, now it’s time for some withdrawals,” he says. “Assign an employee to each of the “victims” and for the next four weeks call them once a week to ‘check in.’ Brand relationships are based on trust. Trust is a precondition of loyalty. JetBlue needs to recreate the goodwill that the passengars were feeling when they first got on the planes. Vouchers are a conventional solution, but this situation requires less conventional thinking. If the passengers were going to Cancun, arrange though a single hotel a highly discounted rate and give the passengers three free nights.
“It’s all about erasing the pain, eliminating the emotion and rebuidling the trust bridge.”
But most experts now expect JetBlue to make a full recovery. Prudential airline industry analyst Bob McAdoo wrote in a research report last week that “lost revenues and added expenses will cost the company about 4 to 6 cents in the March quarter,” and said he expects JetBlue to pay out $26 million in refunds and credits.
But he added that “although the press coverage of JetBlue’s problems has been widespread, the problems experienced are not likely to be repeated nor any negative impact on the company’s reputation be long lasting. Other new airlines have experienced similar problems with few lingering image problems.”
Sam Singer goes even further: “I think JetBlue may be the next Tylenol,” he says, “meaning that they may come out of this crisis a stronger brand than before because of the positive actions of the company and its CEO. They have grabbed the passenger bill of rights and made it their own. They have shown pure intellectual, political, marketing and common sense savvy.”