Friday, February 23, 2007

The JetBlue Blues

JetBlue's Valentine's Day meshugas has not quite managed to trump all other news events. That's because there have been such major items as what's to become of Anna Nicole Smith's body which lies moldering, just unfortunately not in the grave. And, locally, we have understandably had to devote prime time to the urgent news that New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's and his ex-girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan, are expecting. Yet another celebrity having a baby wouldn't be that big a deal, but we're talking about Tom Brady, the guy everyone in this area - man, woman, child - has a crush on - and the fellow who's been portrayed as so clean-cut, wholesome, and nice-guy-ish that to even suggest any hint of caddishness just seems, well, caddish. (When St. Tom of Brady and said ex-girlfriend  - depending on who's commenting, that would be St. Bridget of Moynahan, Virgin and Martyr or Mary Magdalene's evil sister, Jezebel - trekked to Rome a couple of years back, we were subjected to all kinds of coverage of their call on the Pope.)

But I digress...

JetBlue's massive flight cancellation troubles, and their attempts to recover from it, have managed to stay in the headlines for over a week now. According to many voices in the mainstream media, talking-head TV and the blogosphere, staying in the news has been about all the JetBlue has been managing to do lately.

Last Wednesday Boston got smacked with an ice storm, and for much of the Midwest-Northeast, it was a bad weather, no school day. Yes, we get bad weather all the time, but this storm was truly terrible. It may not sound like it should be, but 2 inches of ice is far worse to dig out of than 2 feet of snow. When I went to dislodge my car the day after the storm, I felt like I was on Shackleton's South Pole Expedition. Even though we've had a few days of above freezing temperature since, the ice mounds, fields, banks, floes, and shards that are all over the city will be here until Opening Day in April.

Due to the grossly inclement weather, flights last Wednesday were completely bollixed up. Under the conditions, all airlines experienced delays and cancellations, but apparently only JetBlue managed to leave plane-loads of passengers sitting on the runway for 11 hours. And, unlike in the good old days when stranded passengers could just complain about it after they got back to the gate, in this day and age they can send real-time videos of their fellow-travelers trying to cope with overheated cabins, clogged plumbing, and lack of water, and debating whether to wrest control of the plane, activate the hatches, and slide down to the runway so they could grab some supplies at Au Bon Pain.

As the story unfolded, we came to learn that JetBlue was the carrier hit worst terms of their operations. Nearly a week after the fact, they were still doing wholesales flight cancellation, trying to play catch up and get their planes and crews where they needed to be, not where they were. For a number of airports, that meant canceling all flights - in and out - while JetBlue tried to get planes where they needed to go, and gave their crews the rest required.

Well, caveat traveler to anyone who counts on friendly skies during February, when as often as not there's a big storm of some sort. Still, this being school vacation week in these parts, I do feel bad for all those Disney-bound families and cruise bound teachers trying to escape the winter for a bit of fun in the sun.

JetBlue tried its darnedest to remedy the situation by hiring charter flights, adding flights where they could, rebooking passengers, booking seats on other airlines, as well as refunding fares, paying for hotel rooms, giving out freebies for later travel. A major spendathon trying to make things right. And from a PR perspective, they did the right thing getting their senior executives out their apologizing and taking the heat in pretty short order.

But what I didn't see early on were the reasons why all this was happening with JetBlue and not the other guys. I made a few trips to their web site and, while they had sparse but clear and decent information on the cancellations, how to rebook, and how folks were going to get their checked bags back, but there was little "why" information that I could find.

Maybe they don't believe in excuses, but there's a difference between excuses and reasons. And I think it would have helped people (once they'd calmed down at bit) if they could have gotten a better understanding of the reasoning behind why JetBlue got so tangled up. The airline should have explained why this happened - if it's the downside of their relatively inexpensive flights, or the fact that they're a relatively young and inexperienced operation, I think that they should have come clean. And explained what lessons they learned from this and how they would do things different if they had to do things over again.

JetBlue's still trying to make up and make good. Earlier this week they unveiled a "Customer Bill of Rights," and I noted with interest that one of the items on it states that when they have cancellations and diversions, they will notify customers of their cause.(Maybe most people wouldn't care, but travelers like me sure would.)

The Bill of Rights is pretty specific about remedies for customers impacted by "Controllable Irregularities" which is apparently how they're categorizing their own operational screwups. (Obviously, they can't make guarantees about the weather.) There are vouchers of different amounts depending on the length of the departure or ground delay. Guaranteed access to food, drink, toilets,and medical help during ground delays. And no more 11 hours on the tarmac due to a ground delay, either. After 5 hours, you get to deplane.

My personal favorite guarantee is the overbooking one: Customers who are involuntarily denied boarding shall receive $1,000.  

(I have occasionally watched Airline, a reality TV show about Southwest Airlines. Based on what I've seen on the show, Southwest has a little too much aggressive friendliness for my taste. And since I really don't want a stewardess leading a sing-a-long, thank-you, I would not put them high on my airline of choice list. But they also seem to make a habit of overbooking, and a number of the episodes I've seen show their nice and friendly personnel dealing with not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers. In the shows on overbooking, the nice and friendly Southwest personnel are shown trying to bate the not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers into swearing at them or downing a drink or too so that they can better tolerate dealing with the Southwest nice and friendly personnel. Drinking and cussing appear to give the nice and friendly Southwest personnel a reason to ban the not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers from the flight, thus easing Southwest's overbooking problem. Yet again, I digress, but I'm wondering if Southwest will end up matching the $1000 overbooking promise from JetBlue. Since Southwest seems to run on overbooking, I somehow doubt it.)

Back to our friends at JetBlue:

In addition to the Bill of Rights, they're also apologizing all over the place: on their web site and in the local papers where they provide service. Well, if may be all spin, but they certainly come across as one abject airline that's truly sorry and trying to make things better - not just with their Bill of Rights, but by "putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to your, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties."

JetBlue, of course, has a lot to be sorry about. Their heretofore excellent reputation has been clobbered, their stock price has been trashed, and they're still contending with thousands of ticked off customers (and ex-customers). But they're not trying to brazen this out by blaming the weather, either. And, with the Customer Bill of Rights, they're putting their money where their apology is.

Everyone I know who flies JetBlue gives them pretty high marks for service and value. The airline doesn't have to get a permanent black eye out of all this. Time - and the next time they have a big problem on their hands - will tell us whether they've really figured things out. (As will seeing whether they start trying to weasel out of things by defining "Controllable Irregularity" so narrowly that the only "Controllable Irregularlity" would be CEO David Neeleman's lying down in front of a taxi-ing pane. You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to.)

'Til then, I'll just chalk it up to growing pains - JetBlue doing the growing, and for this past week at least, their customers feeling the pain.


John Whiteside said...

Southwest won't need to match JetBlue. They have fanatically loyal customers, and the experience of flying with them is generally pleasant. (Though, like you, I'm not wild about the overly entertaining staff. Still, it beats cranky. Hello, USAirways?)

Plus, while JetBlue may be giving them competition on some routes, they make a lot of money by operating what I call the Texas Bus Service - shuttling people around all of our cities, which are often 8 hour drives apart. And there are no trains. If you need to go to Odessa or Laredo, they are the ticket.

Anonymous said...

Last January, there was a bad snowstorm that caused similar operational issues in JFK and BOS for JetBlue, and last year, JetBlue promised to its employees and passengers that it would never happen again. It took 3 days to recover from that storm, and yes, they chartered planes to clean up the mess. The difference was that it wasn't during the busiest travel week of the year.

Here we go again.

The issue at hand for JetBlue is that they have not scaled their business operations to support the size of their system and fleet. They still conduct business as if it were 7 years ago with a fresh fleet and a small number of employees and passengers. What crippled the carrier this time, and last year, was that they did not know where flight crews were nor how many hours they have worked. JetBlue, which pioneered direct-to-web sales and in-flight entertainment, has not invested, or invested very poorly (just read the fine print in their annual reports), in technology since its initial launch. The IT infrastructure, notably their reservation and crew scheduling systems, are vestiges of a much smaller past.

And this time, it caught up to them and tens of thousands of passengers. It's going to take a lot of effort behind the scenes for JetBlue to grow up - a very expensive prospect in an insanely costly industry that has razor thin margins in good times. And just think - oil is back over $60 a barrel.