Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Affari Edge Blog

The Affari Edge Blog
Discussion about advertising, marketing, and public relations…

Jet Blew: How a great airline handled a public relations catastrophe
First, let me say that I have not flown on Jet Blue, but I know people who have. It is a great airline and has repeatedly been recognized for outstanding customer service. They do know how to operate an airline, and they do it well.

Or did until last week. Cupid shot an arrow throught their reputation.

On Valentine’s Day, a snowstorm hit the Northeast US. Airports closed. Airlines canceled flights, Jet Blue among them - although later than most.

As the storm started breaking, airlines started flying again. Except for Jet Blue. It seems that they had some rather major internal communications problems. Their pilots and flight attendants were scattered all over the place - and Jet Blue didn’t really know where. They had too many airplanes in other places. The New York Post reported Jet Blue had 52 plans parked at JFK Thursday morning, and the airport closed the runway - so Jet Blue couldn’t get their planes to other airports, stranding passengers.

So pilot-less planes were loaded with passengers who waited. And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And… well, you get the picture. Some planes sat on the tarmac for 10 hours or more.

It didn’t help that usually responsive customer service personnel were not able to give out information. Or FAA rules hogtied what Jet Blue personnel could do (such as having to wait four hours before givng food and water on planes sitting on the tarmac).

So what happens to people like this? They blog. was started by a woman (Genevieve) stranded for 11 hours at JFK:


Nothing says “I love you” like being held hostage on a frozen plane with the man you love, 99 strangers, 4 other people you happen to know, 4 screaming babies and 3 rambunctious kids running about, nothing but chips and soda for sustenance, faulty power, unreliable direct TV and overfilled sewage system for 11 hours.

In one week, she has 87 posts. 87. They range from news articles about the situation to posts about other Jet Blue hostages. There are even two posts from a Jet Blue employee — one basically chastising Genevieve for starting her blog. Other bloggers posted as well, and linked to Genevieve’s post.


Days after the snowball started, the CEO - David Neeleman - finally tried to get in front of it. He admitted the mistakes. He taked about his airline’s internal shortcomings. He was “humiliated and mortified” by what has transpired. The New York Times has a great article about his mea culpa.

He is offering refunds and more cash to those affected. Jet Blue paid for hotel stays and free meals. The only information about this on the official website were press releases and an “operational interruption” notice.

Could they have handled this better? Absolutely. Neeleman almost admitted as much.

Now I will admit that I am not a crisis management specialist. I realize that what I find in news reports and blog posts does not represent the totality of what Jet Blue has done and will do. But I can say there are three things I would have done differently.

1) When internal communications breakdown, external communications need more transparency. Passengers should know as much as possible. Most of the negative reactions fr0m passengers stemmed from the inbility of Jet Blue staff to give any information.

When a CEO has to come out and admit that his company has some internal problems, his stockholders will not like what happens to the stock price. Shares of JetBlue had actually risen at the end of last week, and the market is closed today for Presidents’ Day. I will be watching the shares tomorrow, but if all flights return to flying the long-term impact will be negligible.

2) Provide a mechanism for feedback other than yelling at Jet Blue employees. Imagine if, instead of having an irate passenger starting her own blog, JetBlue had started a forum or blog where customers could vent. Yes, the comments would be negative - but the company could see earlier just how big the snowball is getting… and would know how their customers are reacting.

It would let the company know both where and how to communicate information. It would also allow them to dispell rumors and provide accurate, clear information - instead of embedding the information in their press release section, hoping media outlets will communicate for them.

3) Open the internal communications structure. Neeleman noted that he had pilots sending him emails asking what to do. If those same pilots and/or flight attendants could use on-line communications tools such as forums or blog comments, it might have expedited some of the staffing problems. These tools need not be public-facing, but social media technology can be utilized for internal communications.

Only time will tell what the effects will be on Jet Blue. They will be spening money on better training. They will undoubtedly be spending money on communications and reservations systems. A lesson has clearly been learned, and they will - once again - be back to among the best customer-service airlines in the world. It is just interesting to see how this situation has been handled.

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