JetBlue -- Aftermath of Chaos

ByABC News
February 19, 2007, 7:20 PM

Feb. 19, 2007 — -- 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.