JetBlue’s C.E.O. Is ‘Mortified’ After Fliers Are Stranded
JetBlue’s C.E.O. Is ‘Mortified’ After Fliers Are Stranded
The founder and chief executive of JetBlue Airways, his voice cracking at times, called himself “humiliated and mortified” by a huge breakdown in the airline’s operations that has dragged on for nearly a week, and promised that in the future JetBlue would pay penalties to customers if they were stranded on a plane for too long.
David G. Neeleman said in a telephone interview yesterday that his company’s management was not strong enough. And he said the current crisis, which has led to about 1,000 canceled flights in five days, was the result of a shoestring communications system that left pilots and flight attendants in the dark, and an undersize reservation system. Until now, JetBlue and its low fares have enjoyed overwhelming popularity and customer satisfaction ratings.
The crisis began Wednesday when an ice storm hit the Eastern United States. Most airlines responded by canceling more flights earlier, sending passengers home and resuming their schedules within a day or two. But JetBlue thought the weather would break and it would be able to fly, keeping its revenue flowing and its customers happy.
On the contrary, JetBlue’s woes dragged on day after day. On Saturday night, for instance, the airline said that the 23 percent of flights it had canceled on Saturday and Sunday would also be canceled Monday. The confusion led to angry exchanges between customers and employees, prompting the airline to call out security personnel.
Founded in 1999 as a low-fare airline, JetBlue was often cited as a favorite among passengers and expanded rapidly, but its systems to deal with the consequences of bad weather did not keep up with the growth, Mr. Neeleman said. The company’s low-cost operating structure may have been a contributing factor.
“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” he said. “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 saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’ ”
The part of the company that locates pilots and flight attendants and directs them to their next flight assignment is far too small for an airline JetBlue’s size, Mr. Neeleman said. He vowed to train 100 existing corporate office employees to work in that area when needed. Within two weeks, the area can be better backstopped, he said, and within 30 days, “flawless.”
Then again, Mr. Neeleman has been wrong before. On Friday, he told The New York Times that operations would be mostly back to normal on Saturday. That morning the company canceled 23 percent of its flights and shut service to 11 cities entirely.
Yesterday Mr. Neeleman said that throughout the chain of events, he had overestimated JetBlue’s ability to find people and get them into position.
The basic problem, he said, was JetBlue’s communication system: the ice storm had left a large portion of the airline’s 11,000 pilots and flight attendants far from where they needed to be to operate the planes, and JetBlue lacked the trained staff to find them and tell them where to go. Prior to last week, JetBlue had never had so many people out of position.
The reservation system was also overwhelmed, with customers unable to get through to human agents to check on a flight. In an unusual arrangement, the company employs nearly 2,000 reservation agents in the Salt Lake City area, many of them women who work at home. Mr. Neeleman said he would adjust their work agreement to require them to work longer hours during difficult periods.
Mr. Neeleman said he would announce a compensation system for passengers tomorrow. He is hoping to win quick forgiveness from customers and to demonstrate that he takes the airline’s failings seriously.
“This is going to be a different company because of this,” Mr. Neeleman said. “It’s going to be expensive. But what’s more important is to win back people’s confidence.” He did not say if higher fares might be in the offing.
At the peak of the JetBlue problem, nine airplanes full of angry passengers sat for six hours or more on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Other airlines have suffered big breakdowns. American Airlines stranded passengers on a plane in Austin, Tex., for about eight hours last Dec. 29. And in January 1999, a Northwest Airlines flight from the Caribbean arrived in Detroit 22 hours late and then was kept on the snowy tarmac for seven hours.
Last week at J.F.K., Delta Air Lines had at least one outbound flight that pulled away from the gate and then sat for two hours or more on the tarmac before returning to the gate, Betsy Talton, a Delta spokeswoman said. But Delta’s operations, smaller at J.F.K. than JetBlue’s, ran more smoothly. It canceled 20 to 25 of its roughly 80 flights on Wednesday, Ms. Talton said, and had some delays on Thursday.
Up and down the East Coast, Southwest avoided many of the problems JetBlue confronted by canceling more flights earlier. American Airlines also canceled flights earlier at J.F.K.
Throughout the airline industry, the move to lower costs has led to a thinning of staff. When things are running smoothly, the fewer number of people is usually adequate. When bad weather and other problems develop, however, it often becomes clear that airlines do not have enough people to manually rebook passengers on other flights, to handle misplaced bags and to take care of other problems.
Mr. Neeleman said JetBlue certainly erred in not canceling more flights and in not doing so earlier on Wednesday, and added that his company’s management lacked depth in operations. “We need to beef it up,” he said. “I’ll address that as well.”
Mr. Neeleman said he would enact what he called a customer bill of rights that would financially penalize JetBlue — and reward passengers — for any repeat of the current upheaval. He said he would propose a plan to pay customers, after some amount of time, by the hour for being stranded on a plane.
He says knows he has to deliver. “I can flap my lips all I want,” he said. “Talk is cheap. Watch us.”
There is growing sentiment in Congress to pass legislation that would mandate limits on the time passengers can be kept in a plane on the ground and also set compensation standards for stranded passengers. The airline industry hopes to fend off such a measure. Mr. Neeleman said he wanted to make the penalties to JetBlue “more aggressive than any airline lobbyist would let Congress do.”
Gordon M. Bethune, the former chief executive of Continental Airlines, said that little other than low fares would do much to win back customers, but if an airline makes a bad judgment call, “you better be good at recovery no matter what.” He called last week’s JetBlue meltdown “a byproduct of their past and their growth.”