Picture this: it’s been a tough start to the year, having to get back into work mode from all that time off over the holidays, and you’ve barely seen your loved ones for what seems like more than a quick second. But all of that is about to change; it’s Valentine’s Day and your boss gave you the day off to fly home to see your family. You’re looking good, you’re bags are packed, and you’ve even arrived to the airport early. Despite the “ice-storm” warnings that you don’t need to worry about due to no cancellations, everything seems to be in tip-top shape. As you’re boarding the plane and making yourself comfortable in your seat, just before you’re about to doze off, the flight attendant comes on the speaker: “Attention JetBlue customers, our flight take-off will be delayed slightly; we thank you for your patience and will be lifting off momentarily”.
(Image courtesy of Emirates.com)
If you were one of the 130,000+ customers of JetBlue on February 14th, 2007, you don’t have to picture it- you experienced it first hand! Due to JetBlue (whose home-base is JFK airport in NY, where this happened) underestimating just how bad this ice storm was going to be, it took six hours for passengers that were stuck on the plane, ON the ramp, to make it back to a GATE to get off- not at their destination- at the same place they got on; not to mention the flights that were having difficulty landing. For all you readers that think this sounds hectic enough, it wasn’t. Everything continued to trickle down the gutter for JetBlue over the next six days. So what went terribly wrong with JetBlue that day, and why did it take six days to fix? Independent to that day, JetBlue depended solely on a dispersed workforce reservations system, the web, and no sign of a plan B.
It wouldn’t come as a shock if JetBlue lacked an issues manager, as Seitel discusses in chapter 19 of his book, The Practice of Public Relations. An issues manager could have helped in assuring a crisis like this wouldn’t happen, or at least be a clean and fast recovery. The issues manager has a five-step process to go by, but in sum their goal is to delegate the process to help preserve markets, reduce risk, create opportunities, and manage image as an organizational asset for the benefit of an organization (Seitel). In this case, JetBlue only increased their risk. For big companies like them, it isn’t the best idea to have a dispersed workforce in charge of the reservations- meaning their agents are working from home to have more flexibility. Shouldn’t the customer have the most flexibility? This is something that should have been executed differently. If you want to give your employees flexible hours, fine; but make those hours require their attendance.
However, they did seem to respond okay, depending on how you look at it. A crisis as big as this, that caused over 1,000 flights to be cancelled over the next six days and only 17 of the 165 flights to have taken the day of, demands personal care. CEO David Neeleman took it upon himself to publicly apologize to the 130,000+ customers affected by the cancellations, delays, and diversions; he even offered some generous compensation. Any customer that was sitting on a plane for more than three hours received a full refund of their flight (ya think!) and a free voucher for any round-trip flight. Well, that’s a start. Additionally, Neeleman went on to issue a Customer Bill of Rights on February 21st. This piece of news was just as hot as the crisis itself. The policy offered explicit compensation for any future complications associated with flights and offered a whopping $1000 if a customer is involuntarily bumped from a flight due to overbooking. Since I’m not a JetBlue customer, I’m looking at this as a third party. Before this crisis, they had such loyal customers that were always satisfied with their services; was it neccessary to publicly issue a Customer Bill of Rights? Inconvenienced customers should be compensated in some way, but asserting a plan for if that does happen could have been efficient enough.
No matter how many apologies are issued, the question still remained: What has JetBlue learned from this and what plans are they implementing to avoid future crisis’? Although this crisis was unfortunate, JetBlue turned it into a huge wake-up call and learning experience. Because of this crisis, it was brought to Neeleman’s attention that he had endless employees willing to help, but they didn’t know how. They weren’t trained for this. Julia Hanna, associate editor of Harvard Business School, states: “Neeleman told the New York Times, “We had an emergency control center full of people who didn’t know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn’t get a hold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me say, ‘I’m available, what do I do?'” No CEO should ever has employees so helpless at such a time of need. In retrospect, he learned from it and during that crisis CIO Charles Mees was devising a plan to fix it. Mees “created a database to track crew locations and contact information, later adding new functions that would allow pilots and crew to type in their locations via mobile Internet devices (Hanna). As for Neeleman, he conducted employee-cross training so that 900 corporate employees could assist JFK.
Anybody can look at this crisis and say what they would have done differently; heck, Neeleman did that himself. But in the end, crisis’ happen and the best thing for any organization- big or small- to do is have a plan of action for them. Neeleman took full responsibility for this large hiccup and did what he felt necessary to restore his customers faith in JetBlue. The three major lessons to be learned here is 1)have a team of issues managers, 2) have all employees fully trained for their job and any sudden issues that may arise, and 3) have consistent evaluations on operating processes and decide where greater structure is needed. After reading all of this, if you were searching for a flight in the future, would you consider JetBlue?
*This video is one of the personal apologies CEO of JetBlue, David Neeleman made to the public.
Hanna, Julia. “JetBlue’s Valentine’s Day Crisis.” Harvard Business School. N.p., 31 Mar 2008. Web. 14 Jun 2013. <http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5880.html>.
Seitel, Fraser. The Practice of Public Relations. 11th edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
McGregor, Jena. “An Extraordinary Stumble at JetBlue.” Bloomberg Business Week. 4 Mar 2007: n. page. Web. 14 Jun. 2013. <http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2007-03-04/an-extraordinary-stumble-at-jetblue>.