“We lost control.”
—David Neeleman, CEO, JetBlue
I have sat in jet airliners on runways, but never for more than an hour.
The weather outside the cabin may have been clear and sunny, but as the pilot explained over the public address system, no incoming traffic was able to land at the destination airport because of fog or snow.
So we sat—grateful to be safe on the ground—rather than endlessly circling O’Hare or Metro Detroit in soup, waiting for a break in the weather and for the planes ahead of us to land.
In 2006, some 60,000 fully loaded planes, were stuck on the tarmac for one to two hours. Out of 7.1 million flights, only 36 planes were pushed back from the gate and were stuck for more than five hours.
This past Valentine’s Day, nine JetBlue airliners filled with passengers, sat on runways for more than six hours each. The passengers on several of these planes were trapped for more than 10 hours with no water, few snacks, toilets fouled and overflowing, and the cabin so hot and smelly that doors were opened to allow fresh air in.
JetBlue wound up canceling more than 1,000 flights over a period of five days with flight crews stranded all across the country and unable to get in touch with headquarters.
In Inc. Magazine’s 25th Anniversary issue in September 2006, JetBlue’s founder and CEO David Neeleman, was interviewed as one of “America’s 25 most fascinating entrepreneurs.”
Neeleman told the Inc. writer that he was not in the aviation industry. “We’re in the customer service business,” he said.
No, he’s not.
David Neeleman is in the business of being a world-class jerk.
Memories of a Winter Long Ago
My second job out of the Army in 1961 was selling children’s books to bookstores and wholesalers in the non-major cities of the East and Midwest.
My employer, Franklin Watts, was an old-time book salesman who used to cover vast territories by train. In those days, a salesman would travel with a trunk filled with new books, set up a mini-store in a hotel room and invite his buyer-chums in to learn about the upcoming titles and do some serious drinking.
Enter the jet plane, and trunks were done away with. You carried a satchel filled with book jackets of forthcoming titles and order forms. This was book-selling lite.
In one nasty winter storm, I found myself sitting next to McKinsey & Co. partner Ward Howell on a TWA flight to Pittsburgh, which was socked in with snow. We landed in Cincinnati. My luggage and sample case never made it.
I called Frank and he gave me two pieces of advice that are etched in my memory: (1) Always carry your sample case with you (or the material you need to conduct business); never check it; (2) Get back on your original schedule as quickly as possible, even if it means missing a city or two.
Frank’s logic was impeccable. I had a complex itinerary and precise dates with buyers city-by-city. In the era before cell phones and the Internet, calling to cancel a few sales dates because of the weather was easy; rescheduling an entire two-week trip from a hotel room phone would have been a nightmare.
David Neeleman: Hotshot Who Thought He Knew Better
JetBlue’s David Neeleman, described in Inc. as “a famously frenetic 44-year-old Mormon with nine kids and attention deficit disorder,” sold tickets on the cheap and ran his airline on the cheap.
He was young, brash and thought he knew better than his fuddy-duddy competitors in the legacy airlines that got through the weather crunch with minimum loss of revenue and inconvenience to passengers.
David Neeleman could have benefited from the business common sense of old-timers like Frank Watts who had seen everything once and done it twice.
In the words of aviation consultant Tim Sieber, general manager of the Boyd Group, “There’s a lot more gray hair at older airlines than at JetBlue.”
David Neeleman and his young Turks ignored two laws:
Law #1 was Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Law #2 is what happens when Newton’s Third Law of Motion is ignored over and over again: “The Domino Effect.”
(To see the domino effect in action, visit http://tinyurl.com/35dx2h)
What follows is the sequence of events:
* It all started with a seven-year-old airline that did not believe in canceling flights, figuring that customers would rather get where they are going even if they are late than not get there at all. As a result, JetBlue had one of the lowest flight cancellation rates.
* On Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14, an ice storm hit and the National Weather Service issued severe warnings. Virtually all airlines in the affected areas cancelled flights, sent passengers and crews home and contacted other passengers that could be reached to warn them not to show up. As a result, these airlines were back up and running in two days with a minimum loss of money and inconvenience to passengers.
* JetBlue management believed that the weather would break and that they would be keeping customers happy by flying, and itself happy with the inflow of revenue.
* Some JetBlue planes took off. Others pushed back from the gates and were stranded on runways, including the nine jets where passengers were imprisoned for between six and 10 hours.
* Those flights that were stranded for 10 hours would not have been allowed to take off, because pilots’ time in the cockpit exceeded the limits under FAA work rules.
* An aside to illustrate the sleaziness of JetBlue’s business practices is this Oct. 26, 2006 story from The Wall Street Journal:
Last year, thousands of JetBlue Airways passengers became unwitting participants in a highly unusual test of pilot fatigue. Without seeking approval from Federal Aviation Administration headquarters, consultants for JetBlue outfitted a small number of pilots with devices to measure alertness. Operating on a green light from lower-level FAA officials, management assigned the crews to work longer shifts in the cockpit—as many as 10 to 11 hours a day—than the eight hours the government allows. Their hope: Showing that pilots could safely fly far longer without exhibiting ill effects from fatigue. The results of the test haven’t yet been made public—they are expected to be published by the end of the year—and JetBlue executives say even they don’t know the findings. But the experiment has landed JetBlue in hot water while fueling a fierce debate within the airline industry about how long pilots should be allowed to stay at the controls.
* Finally, JetBlue canceled half of its 279 regularly scheduled Valentine’s Day flights, which meant that a significant percentage of its aircraft and 1000 flight crews were scattered across the country. The department that locates and schedules pilots and flight attendants was woefully understaffed.
* “We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” CEO 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 ahold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’”
* The New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which operates Kennedy Airport—JetBlue’s main hub—has busses and staff at the ready 24/7 to deal with emergencies. Yet JetBlue management failed to call for help until mid-afternoon—even though these fully loaded planes had been stuck on runways since early morning.
* Much of JetBlue’s passenger reservations department is comprised of over 1,900 women, many of whom work from home in the Salt Lake City area—basically on their own and unsure how to cope.
* One passenger described the scene at a JetBlue departure gate as disgusting. “The noise was deafening. People were screaming. There were police officers in riot gear. JetBlue employees were crying. There were piles of luggage and no control over what was going on.”
* In all, JetBlue canceled 1000 flights and failed to get back on schedule for nearly a week.
David Neeleman Falls on His Sword.
In the days following the catastrophe, CEO Neeleman was all over the media like a cheap suit—being interviewed by any and all that would have him. In a phone interview, Jeff Bailey of The New York Times wrote that Neeleman, “his voice cracking at times, called himself ‘humiliated and mortified’ by a huge breakdown in the airline’s operations.”
He promised a serious upgrade in JetBlue’s utterly inadequate infrastructure.
“We love our customers and are horrified by this,” Neeleman said in an interview. “There’s going to be a lot of apologies.”
In an attempt to head off congressional debate and a possible bill protecting passengers from airline abuses, Neeleman broke the story or his Passengers’ Bill of Rights on NBC’s Today Show with Matt Lauer. Included would be payments of $25 to $100 on up to free round-trip tickets, depending upon the amount of time spent on the ground in an airplane.
Neeleman promised to retro-compensate aggrieved Valentine’s Day passengers based on the new payment schedule and suggested to an interviewer that it would cost the airline $20- to $30 million.
However, most of the payments are “vouchers”—funny-money scrip—redeemable only as discounts on JetBlue travel.
One paragraph in the company’s Bill of Rights would cause me to swear off JetBlue forever:
For customers who experience a Ground Delay for more than 5 hours, JetBlue will take necessary action so that customers may deplane. JetBlue will also provide customers experiencing a Ground Delay with food and drink, access to restrooms and, as necessary, medical treatment.
This past weekend, another major storm was predicted to strike the East Coast. A circulation consultant that I know was scheduled to fly from New York to Boston on JetBlue for a meeting. Another attendee was flying in from elsewhere in New England. They decided to reschedule rather than take a chance on cancellations or ground delays.
My friend called JetBlue and was told that he would have to pay a $25 penalty for changing the date. “But this is weather related,” my friend said. “I shouldn’t be charged an extra $25.”
“I would suggest you e-mail the customer service department with your complaint.”
“Yeah,” my friend said. “That and $2 will get me a ride on the New York City subway.”
My friend was right to change. JetBlue canceled 66 flights out of New York and left passengers in one plane stuck on the tarmac for hours.
The Long-term Effect
“Was JetBlue’s reputation hurt?” David Neeleman was asked.
“Is our good will gone?” He replied. “No, it isn’t. We fly 30 million people a year. Ten thousand were affected by this.”
Neeleman was probably right. No matter how many angry customers swore off JetBlue, if next summer they have a choice of flying U.S. Airways for a $400 round trip or JetBlue for $150, they will go JetBlue.