On Valentine's Day, JetBlue Airways watched as its entire schedule melted into thin air. Gateless, inbound flights piled up on the JFK ramp, and outbound flights were prevented from departing, even after leaving their gates. The tugs and other equipment needed to move empty airplanes away from the jetways froze in place.
At that pivotal moment in time, the folks in the airline's operational nerve center went the wrong way. Instead of following the "whatever is best for our passengers" ethic of their company, they defaulted to the "keep the operation running at all costs" position. The result has been both a corporate and PR nightmare, as well as a grand opportunity that JetBlue's chairman and creator David Neeleman has been, so far, smart enough to seize.
Neeleman admitted that the airline has to be "rebooted" like a computer. Hundreds of flights have been canceled as the snarl of planes must first be cleared and the flight crews running out of maximum legal duty time for the month, as well as for the flight, must be put back to the starting point.
Many airlines would cancel the same percentage of flights, but publicly pretend nothing was wrong. JetBlue honorably chose to take the hit immediately and admit it. But the real opportunity rests on the chairman's shoulders, not just to tell the truth, but to discuss the humanity and fallibility of a good organization in terms we can all appreciate.
Airlines are human organizations, not machines, and it is axiomatic that we humans are forever imperfect. What happened to JetBlue's focus in the growing debacle of Feb. 14 resulted from a series of human mistakes in a very tightly wound, complex system.
So, what do you do when thousands of people are angry at the results of such a meltdown? Put a human face on the airline (i.e., send the chairman out to face the cameras), admit what went wrong in great and honest detail, do your best to make it right with those most inconvenienced (full refunds, replacement trips, personal apologies, etc.), and then go on every radio and television show you can find to explain how your human system glitched and what systemic changes you're going to make (without blaming only individuals or letting the heads roll) in order that it never happens again.
Indeed, this is a model American Healthcare needs to follow when they let human error in a complex human system injure or kill a patient: admit everything, apologize and tell us how that injury will not have been in vain because you're using these expensive lessons to fix the system.
But there is another way to see the Valentine's Day disaster. What happened last week at Kennedy Airport is really part of the endgame of airline deregulation begun by a bipartisan congressional bill in 1978. Deregulation, in essence, declared that the airline industry is NOT a public utility, and in the process, threw it to the wolves of the free market.
The result, when taken as a whole, has been a disaster of near biblical proportions, with an entire industry forced to shift its attention away from from customer service and satisfaction to continuous cutthroat struggles to capture the most passengers with the lowest fares -- even if they don't cover the basic costs of providing public air transportation. The very important public interest of having a stable air transportation system had been blown away by the mid-80s.
Among the many start-up airlines that have arisen since 1978, only a few predicated themselves as much upon customer service as making money. Among that very small group, JetBlue has been a rare and successful example. The problem in today's airline industry is that any focus on taking care of the customer beyond just getting him there safely flies in the face of the dominant airline ethic of doing everything on the cheap to keep the fares artificially low.
In JetBlue's case, a brilliant start-up plan using new and safe airplanes, highly trained crews, and a company of enthusiastic people dedicated to both safety and service, have won a dedicated and growing following, as well as profitability (however tenuous at times).
JetBlue succeeded where others failed because it walked the razor-edge line between the lowest possible prices and providing better customer service and attention (such as free in-seat satellite television and well-trained gate agents who don't seem mad at the world).
To do that -- especially where you have only one hub city -- the operation must be as fine-tuned as an intricate Swiss watch (pre-electronic version). No waste, no unnecessary man hours, no delays, and most especially, no major mistakes. When you throw sand in the gears of a Swiss watch, it stops. When you throw a major snowstorm and flight restrictions into a fine-tuned boutique airline's only hub, it, too, essentially stops.
Americans are forgiving to a fault, especially when told the truth and given an apology. JetBlue is a fine airline with well-trained people who are enthusiastic about the difference they've created between airborne cattle cars and an airline flying for less that still works hard to care about the customers who pay their salaries.
Provided Neeleman carries on with the honest and open method of dealing with Valentine's Day, there will be no question of JetBlue's recovery.