Last week, popular low-fare airline JetBlue suffered a huge setback after extreme weather conditions at JetBlue's hub at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City all but shut down the airline. Several planes were grounded on the JFK tarmac, with passengers inside them, for as long as ten or eleven hours. Tempers flared as passengers trapped inside the airplanes became restless, toilets overflowed and cabin crews ran out of food. Inside Terminal Six, events were also chaotic as flight after flight was canceled, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.
JetBlue has apologized for the disruptions
, but repercussions from the storm haunted JetBlue all weekend as it struggled to resume normal operations. Flights to several cities, including Houston, were cancelled Sunday and Monday as the airline ferried its equipment to necessary locations and ensured that flight crews had the proper amount of rest, per FAA regulations, before taking to the skies once again. The airline reports that it has returned to operating normally as of today.
JetBlue, which has won fans in the past for its reluctance to cancel flights because of bad weather, is blaming the problems on its inability to cope with rescheduling so many flight crews.
“We had a weakness in our system,” said (JetBlue CEO David) Neeleman. “We were overwhelmed.”
Overwhelmed? That's a bit of an understatement. "Caught with your pants down" is probably more descriptive of what happened, as the incident exposed some serious flaws in the airline's operational philosophy:
When the bad weather struck Feb. 14, JetBlue didn’t have a system in place for many stranded flight crews to call in to be rerouted, something the airline is working to rectify, Neeleman said. The service breakdown “was absolutely painful to watch,” he said Monday.
One travel expert suggested the airline had brought the crisis on itself by trying too hard to accommodate its passengers.
“Most airlines don’t try to operate when there is an ice-storm problem — they’ve learned that it’s better to cancel all flights at the outset and then try to get back to
normal operations as quickly as possible,” said David Stempler, president of the Washington-based Air Travelers Association.
Stempler said the fast growth of airlines such as JetBlue can create demands that are beyond their capability, especially in crises.
“JetBlue tried to do their best — tried to keep the system rolling,” he said. “Their heart was in the right place, but their head was not.”
Neeleman, who has said he was “humiliated and mortified” by his airline's failures as a result of the storm, has promised to fix the problems revealed by last week's service outage, spending up to $30 million on new procedures for operations disruptions and introducing "bill of rights" for its customers.
While JetBlue as a corporation will likely recover from this incident, it remains to be seen how much damage has been done to JetBlue as a brand.
To be sure, massive weather-related disruptions and the accompanying distress placed on the flying public happen to airlines all the time; last December's blizzard-related shutdown of United's operations at Denver, or the recent incident wherein an American Airlines flight en route to Dallas/Fort Worth was stranded on the tarmac at Austin Bergstrom for many hours, are two such examples. But JetBlue takes pride in not being "another airline." It has won a loyal following and has become a popular airline due to its unique perks - in-flight DirecTV and blue potato chips, for example - and an incident such as this carries much more potential damage to an airline with a carefully-cultivated image, such as JetBlue, than it does to many other carriers - the bigger ones, especially - who don't have quite as positive a reputation.
It will be interesting to see if Neeleman's attempts to repair the airline's operational problems - and with it, its image - are successful over the coming months and the airline is able to retain its loyal customer base as well as its reputation as being a unique, passenger-friendly carrier. If not, JetBlue runs the risk of becoming "just another airline." And that, more than any economic damage caused by last week's fiasco, would be a disaster for JetBlue.