The JetBlue Saga: A Model Response To A Media Crisis

It was a text-book study of how an industry's chronic problem can suddenly become a front-page firestorm. On Wednesday, February 14, 2007, a winter storm crippled commercial air flights across the U.S., but it was JetBlue that bore the brunt of an operational meltdown, leaving passengers stranded on runways for up to 10-hour stretches. Less than a week later, the carrier took a step that should be remembered and commended as a true best practice in crisis communications. The problem began on Valentine's Day, with employees and passengers berating each other and perilously near violence as the travel horror stories piled up throughout the eastern U.S. Other airlines were also canceling flights and infuriating their customers, but JetBlue - the airlines' standard for good customer relations - became a victim of its own success and the poster child for an industry in disarray. Customers who weren't stranded on the runway were stranded in airports; in fact, they remained stranded well into the weekend, as JetBlue canceled all its flights as it struggled to get back on schedule. Meanwhile, baggage had piled up in inextricable heaps, forcing passengers to remain even longer in the airports after deplaning. Online and off, chroniclers used phrases like "hostage situation" in their descriptions of the flight delays and runway detentions. One blog, which was listed very prominently on Google, featured extreme rants that even compared the immobilized airplanes to Nazi concentration camps. The fact that some of the angriest public outcries came from people who weren't even traveling that week underscores the real problem for this industry - or any industry where chronic problems like flight delays and flight cancellations feed public anxieties and distrust until an incident like JetBlue releases pent-up consumer vituperation. We've all been stuck on runways. We have all been mightily inconvenienced by flight delays. We can all identify with the victims here and share their fury. Unlike airplane crashes, which are statistically infrequent, this mess was the same stuff on a new day. Therein lies the crux of the problem for the airline industry, but therein, too might be the beginning of a solution. Even before the crisis abated, JetBlue was apologizing loudly, offering refunds and additional perks to rebuild the goodwill of its customer base. JetBlue's crisis response was admirable, but risk management - i.e., dealing with such problems before they occur - has to be a more fundamental, longer-term objective. Ice storms and other snafus are inevitable. So are rising fuel prices and shrinking employee pools. Risk management is all about anticipating what can and needs to be done in the face of that adversity. Risk management is all about leadership. Paradoxically, no one in the airline industry was in a better position to take such a leadership role than JetBlue. And take it they did. Even before the ice had melted, the media was revivifying talk of a "Passenger's Bill of Rights" that had already been percolating on Capitol Hill before the debacle. If JetBlue and other airlines abhor the idea of a new federal regulation of this sort, then it is their responsibility to take a private-sector initiative in setting the new industry standard for passenger rights. On February 20, David G. Neeleman, JetBlue's founder and CEO, unfurled a $30 million passenger bill of rights that includes: Customers will be compensated based on the length of the delays, ranging from $25 to full ticket price. "Delays" include airplanes unable to taxi to the gate within 30 minutes and flight departures held up for three hours or longer. If JetBlue cancels a flight within 12 hours of its departure, customers can ask for a full refund or a voucher. Passengers receive vouchers if flight delays are the airline's fault. JetBlue will deplane passengers if an aircraft is delayed on the ground for five hours. More important than the specifics of these commitments is the fact that they now exist and that they are packaged, not just as a monetary sop to angry passengers, but as a formal bill of rights. As a result, JetBlue's initiative defines crisis communications at a number of levels. The company is running to the crisis, rather than waiting for it to go away. The bill of rights affirms JetBlue's customer-based brand and may actually enhance that brand long-term. It's a form of strategic jiu-jitsu, nimbly flipping the full weight of the crisis to powerfully propel the company's positive message. JetBlue's action is a model for all industries in trouble, in that regard joining the ranks of Johnson & Johnson and BP in their storied responses to equally public crises. At the same time, there are further initiatives that JetBlue can take in this illustrative saga: JetBlue should lobby for new industry standards - namely, redefining "on time" from push-off to airborne. It's a clear message to passengers that current performance measures are deficient, putting far too much pressure on airlines to fill the planes on time rather than get them off the ground on time. JetBlue needs to get out in front of other airlines with sensitivity training designed to make employees think and feel like passengers. McDonald's sends its managers to "Hamburger University." The airlines should do likewise. Six hours on an airplane with little food, water or access to bathrooms has a remarkable ability to focus the mind on new standards of service. JetBlue has salvaged and strengthened its greatest asset: a reputation as the number one (J.D. Powers) customer service-oriented airline among the low-cost carriers. It's an asset that JetBlue can implicitly and explicitly draw on in the future. By taking a leadership role, JetBlue has reassured its loyal customers that it's not like all the other major carriers, and that it is still a singular industry brand commanding customer loyalty rivaled only by Southwest. Contact: This was contributed to PR News by Richard Levick, president/CEO of Levick Strategic Communications. He can be reached at

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