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by Mike Richman

February 14 dawned as an icy, ugly-looking Valentine's Day in the New York metropolitan area. That was of little concern to the dozens of passengers sitting on JetBlue flight No. 751 at John F. Kennedy International Airport that morning, bound as they were for beautiful Cancun, Mexico. Soon, they had reason to believe, they would leave behind their New York state of whine for a romantic getaway in a tropical paradise. Unfortunately for them and the airline that they entrusted to deliver them to their destinations, it was not to be.

What transpired for those passengers--and other JetBlue customers on other flights scheduled to depart that day--was the result of miscommunication, errors in judgment and faulty planning, all of which added up to a "perfect storm" of poor service quality. This for an airline that has prided itself as a low-cost, high-quality alternative to the legacy carriers that have struggled so terribly to make ends meet in recent years.

As the events of the day began to unfold and word got out to the national news media, JetBlue managers were faced with a crisis. How they reacted to this brewing public relations nightmare offers a lesson in the modern art of spin and the power of mea culpa. It's also a reminder that, in highly visible service industries such as airlines, perception quickly becomes reality, especially in an age of blogs and instantaneous news access. What has taken years to build can often be torn down in a day--and, if handled properly, rebuilt again almost as quickly.

Start at the beginning
JetBlue was born in 1999. Chief Executive Officer David Neeleman and many of the company's executive staff joined fledgling JetBlue directly from Southwest Airlines, which blazed the trail in low-cost, low-frills carriers. Neeleman and his managers believed that JetBlue could take the lesson of Southwest one step further by matching its fares and offering better service and upgraded passenger amenities. Expensive investments such as the 2002 acquisition of satellite television provider LiveTV and the installation of in-seat TV monitors endeared JetBlue to legions of commercial and business travelers. A reputation for doing everything possible within the bounds of safety to avoid canceling flights added to the airline's allure in the eyes of a public that had gotten used to mediocre service from the major legacy carriers.

JetBlue's growing success, reflected in a string of profitable quarters, naturally led to rising stock prices. During the 18 months since its initial public offering in the spring of 2002, JetBlue's stock price nearly tripled; overall, the stock has split three times and, even with a leveling off of the financials and a corresponding stagnation in the stock price, has significantly outperformed its industry peers over the past five years.

Not just Wall Street applauded JetBlue's efforts. From the outset, the company enjoyed favorable ratings from consumers. In the J.D. Power and Associates Airline Satisfaction Index, JetBlue finished No. 1 in both 2005 and 2006. Other carriers dealt with price wars and agonizing choices about whether to cut fares or service levels; meanwhile, JetBlue kept prices low while continuing to work to enrich its customers' flying experience. As a consequence, JetBlue earned that most valued and uncommon of 21st-century customer emotions--loyalty.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
In retrospect, JetBlue wasn't flying as high as it appeared. Labor issues roiled the company as it did for everyone in the industry. Years of spending to improve the customer experience left thinning profit margins.

More ominously, JetBlue went its own way by foregoing interline agreements, which link major carriers with one another and allow airlines to place passengers on flights through other airlines if something goes wrong. Even worse, JetBlue's antiquated flight status system was unable to communicate clearly with the corresponding systems at individual airports, and was even incompatible with JetBlue's own Web site. Internal communications for flight crews were also problematic, with crews often placed in tenuous situations, unable to find out where they were supposed to be at specific times. Massive cancellations, coupled with FAA regulations requiring limited work hours for flight crews, had the potential to throw the system into chaos.

Surely Neeleman and the rest of JetBlue's management team have thought back repeatedly to Valentine's Day and wondered what they might have done differently. It's clear now that, with the brutal weather, the passengers on Flight 751 and others shouldn't have even been loaded on JetBlue's planes at all. Here the airline's reputation for making every possible attempt to get flights off the ground came back to bite it right in the tailpipe.

Once the JetBlue passengers were on the planes that day, they were at the mercy of forces beyond their control--the weather, partly, but also the airline's inability to make quick decisions and act upon them. In fairness, the forecasts that morning called for repeated breaks in the weather, which would have allowed the flights to depart. The planes rolled out to the tarmac, were de-iced and waited to be cleared for takeoff. There they waited… and waited… and waited some more.

Nine and more hours later, the planes still hadn't budged. By that time, the little food available onboard had long before been consumed. The air grew so stuffy that the doors were opened for brief blasts of frigid yet refreshing air. The toilets began to overflow. Passengers onboard were, let's say, a bit perturbed.

Finally, after repeated assurances from crewmembers that the planes would eventually depart, the flights were cancelled. Buses were sent from the terminal to painstakingly retrieve the passengers. Tired, hungry, angry and frustrated, the passengers found little in the way of explanations or assistance from an overwhelmed JetBlue customer support staff.

The next day brought further chaos. "Due to our lack of flight cancellations, and coupled with the fact that we had hundreds of crewmembers and dozens of planes out of place, we simply couldn't recover the operation fast enough without 'resetting' our operation," says JetBlue spokesman Sebastian White. "We were like a giant jigsaw puzzle that had just been thrown up into the air."

Why did JetBlue find itself in this situation, particularly with regard to the misplaced crewmembers? How did a localized system disruption caused by an unexpected but not unimaginable weather blip cause a massive systems failure?

First, due to strict FAA regulations limiting the hours that crews can work in any 24-hour period, the in-flight crews that had "worked" the grounded flights the day before were unavailable to fly the next day. Second, planes didn't move, which caused a domino effect that rippled throughout the JetBlue system. To be fair, other airlines at JFK also experienced significant cancellations, but even if that hadn't been the case, it wouldn't have mattered because, third, placing passengers on flights to their chosen destinations through other carriers was impossible due to JetBlue's lack of interline agreements.

Response
Almost immediately, this was a big news story. Blogs lit up with first-person accounts from passengers stuck on one of JetBlue's flights that fateful day. The mainstream news media quickly got in the act, watching closely and commenting on the company's reaction throughout the painful "resetting" stage that caused the cancellation of hundreds of JetBlue flights into the President's Day weekend.

The way that JetBlue handled the furor was rather unique--it apologized, took responsibility and promised to do better. When problems arise, other carriers have tended to complain about forces beyond their control or pass the buck to others in their supply or service chain. Such responses are common, and they've even appeared on the pages of Quality Digest. JetBlue took a different tack. "We were forthright from the start," says White. "We admitted that we messed up and that we had systemic problems that contributed to our meltdown."

Within days, Neeleman was on the talking-head circuit, hitting every morning news show possible with his mea culpa. He appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," taking personal responsibility for the service breakdown and stating, "We are going to rebound from this." He went further in a statement directed toward JetBlue customers that appeared on the company Web site. "We are sorry and embarrassed," he wrote. "But most of all, we are deeply sorry…. We are committed to you, our valued customers, and are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us."

The message couldn't have been clearer, and, at least so far, JetBlue's actions have been favorably received. The passengers from that day received refunds as well as vouchers for travel anywhere that JetBlue flies. Even so, and understandably, many are still upset and claim that they will never fly the airline again. Industry watchers have been a bit kinder, giving the company high marks for its honesty, if not for its operational execution that day. One blogger called it "a new standard for corporate damage control." Of course, if JetBlue had had some of the processes in place then that are coming online now, the need for that damage control wouldn't have been so pressing.

Moving forward
The "corrective steps" mentioned in Neeleman's online apology were swift in coming. Chief among them was a customer bill of rights that clearly spells out the company's policy regarding cancellations, delays, refunds, vouchers and more. It's a fairly comprehensive statement of the company's policies that covers what passengers can expect if they are significantly inconvenienced on JetBlue flights in the future. The customer bill of rights is available online at www.jetblue.com/p/about/ourcompany/promise/bill_of_rights.pdf.

JetBlue's internal communications are being restructured, especially the company's flight status system, which was one of the more notable failures on Valentine's Day. "Flight status is one area where we struggled," says White. "A flight's status is controlled by our system operations command center, which uses a different system than our Web site and a different system than our airports. Right now we're working diligently to modify all our systems in all our different areas of operations so they're better in sync."

Coincidentally, on February 14, JetBlue entered into its first codeshare agreement, with tiny Cape Air, which services the resort destinations on and around Massachusetts' coastline. Just a week before, JetBlue began discussions on an agreement with Ireland's Aer Lingus. Agreements such as these, perhaps with larger domestic carriers offering more extensive routes, would go a long way toward helping JetBlue better serve passengers by giving it additional options when the unexpected happens.

The company is also taking a more conventional approach to precancellations. As this story went to press, on March 16, JetBlue announced the cancellation of 215 flights, most involving flights either into or out of JFK. Other carriers, including American Airlines and Northwest Airlines, also cancelled dozens of flights into the New York metropolitan area or other northeastern terminals.

JetBlue has received an enormous amount of publicity from the series of events that began on Valentine's Day and, as the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Still, those in our industry appreciate the gravity of the errors that the company made in failing to plan for eventualities such as this, and not having backup plans in place for when those eventualities eventually (as they always do) come to pass. In an era of fierce and ever-increasing corporate competition, there is little room for forgiveness. Continuing mistakes of this kind will surely sound the death knell for JetBlue, as well they should.

Assuming that the company straightens up and flies right in the future, this event (and, more important, management's response to it) could act as an important catalyst to change. Errors happen every day in business, service and manufacturing environments alike. Consumers tend to be forgiving of these errors as long as--and this is critical--management steps up and accepts responsibility for its transgressions, and then--most important of all--makes good on efforts to do better. Again, none of the warm feelings engendered by JetBlue's honesty and courage will amount to anything if the company doesn't permanently fix its glaring, systemic quality malfunctions. Time alone will tell. Saying "We messed up and we're sorry" by itself isn't the way to cure poor quality--but it's a start.

About the author
Mike Richman is Quality Digest's publisher.