JetBlue Offers Passengers Bill of Rights

ByMATTHEW JAFFE

Feb. 20, 2007 — -- Embattled airline JetBlue took the first step in rebuilding its reputation Tuesday after a disastrous week of cancellations and controversies tarnished the popular discount flier's image.

After a Valentine's Day snowstorm triggered an organizational meltdown, JetBlue revealed plans to institute a passenger bill of rights.

"JetBlue Airways today announces a comprehensive customer promise and compensation program called 'The JetBlue Customer Bill of Rights,'" the company said in a statement.

The program includes a compensation plan for travelers based on the length of delays "within JetBlue's control." They exclude delays because of weather, air traffic control, crew shortages and maintenance problems.

Passengers will receive $25 off a future flight if their arrival is delayed by 30 minutes, and will receive full credit for a return flight if the delay lasts two hours or more.

Passengers waiting at the gate to depart on a flight for an hour to two hours will receive a $25 voucher for a future flight; if the delay lasts two to six hours, passengers receive a $50 voucher, and if passengers are waiting to depart at the gate for more than six hours, they will receive a round-trip ticket for a future flight equal in value to the delayed flight.

For departing flights waiting on the tarmac -- similar to the situation last week -- passengers will receive $100 off a future flight after three hours, a round-trip ticket after four hours, and the plane will return to the gate after five hours.

Also, if a flight is canceled within 12 hours of its departure time, passengers can ask for a full refund.

The announcement comes after JetBlue infuriated travelers by first stranding them in planes stuck on airport runways and then failing to get flights back on schedule soon after the storm.

In a video posted on JetBlue's Web site, David Neeleman, the airline's founder and CEO, lamented his company's "worst week" in its eight-year history.

The airline's breakdown began when snow and ice paralyzed the Northeast, triggering a series of events that led to JetBlue leaving full planes on New York's Kennedy Airport runway for up to 10 hours, reigniting the controversy over passengers' rights.

"The bottom line is that it was unacceptable to have left [the planes] there that long," said JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Eshelman, referring to the JFK debacle. "We should have done better."

However, poor communications and an overwhelmed reservation system prevented JetBlue from getting its flights back on schedule as the holiday weekend began.

On Saturday, the airline announced the cancellation of 139 Presidents Day flights, almost a quarter of the day's schedule.

Although the cancellations further inconvenienced travelers, some industry analysts agreed with the decision.

"I applaud any airline that steps up and says, 'You know what? We can't handle this. Let's shut it down and start it up again,'" said ABC News consultant and aviation analyst John Nance.

After watching its reputation for quality service and affordable tickets take a severe hit as the week progressed, JetBlue acted quickly to restore its image.

"This was a big wake-up call for JetBlue," Neeleman said. "If there's a silver lining, it is the fact that our airline is going to be stronger and even better prepared to serve our customers."

The announcement will please travelers who had campaigned for a passengers' bill of rights, even asking Congress to pass federal legislation.

Michael Gast of New York City spent six hours on Thursday waiting for JetBlue flight No. 1050 to take off from Pittsburgh.

"Passengers have no rights," Gast said. "I would ask legislators to re-examine a system that doesn't work at all."

In 1999, the airlines avoided congressional action by agreeing to improve customer service on their own, adopting a 12-point pledge, including the promise to "meet customers' needs during long on-aircraft delays."

Recent customer service failures, such as JetBlue's problems last week and American Airlines' decision two months ago to leave flight No. 1348 on the Austin, Texas, runway for 10 hours, have once again caught the attention of Congress.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., recently announced plans to introduce a federal passengers' bill of rights to ensure that air travelers were not unnecessarily held on planes or deprived access to basic food, water and hygiene.

"To keep passengers, which usually include infants and the elderly, on a plane for 11 hours in the worst of conditions is absurd," she said. "If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely."

While JetBlue's measure may well be another way to avoid congressional action, it is a dramatic attempt by the airline to respond to growing public outcry about the American airline industry.

"[Airlines] are so mercenary and so bottom-line," Gast said. "They have pretty much demonstrated that our comfort is their least concern."

JetBlue once again hopes to change the minds of disillusioned travelers.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events