Out of Office: How Thousands of Irate Passengers Helped Make JetBlue a Better Company

This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers and members share their business travel advice and stories from life on the road. Read all the posts here.

LinkedIn – When the general counsel of an airline is standing on a ticket desk with a megaphone calling for the National Guard for help, you know you have a problem.

On Wednesday, February 14, 2007, an ice storm seized the Northeast, causing many airlines to cancel flights early in the day. At JetBlue, we were optimistic that the weather forecast would hold true and the ice would turn to rain, so we stayed the course and maintained our flight schedules. The problem was, we were wrong. That winter storm turned into a monster, bringing about the biggest disaster in the company’s history, dubbed ”Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

In many ways, this literal storm coincided with a perfect storm. For a start, the timing was terrible. The ice hit during the combination of Valentine’s Day and the height of travel for President’s Day weekend. That meant lots of travel and no spare seats, on any airline.

We also had to deal with planes literally frozen to the runway. At our primary airport, New York’s JFK International, the weather meant flights couldn’t take off; so they stayed at their gates. But plenty of planes were still able to land, and when they did, they had nowhere to go. Some were stuck on the tarmac for as long as eight hours, encased in ice that had frozen them to the ground. We couldn’t have moved them even if we had tried.

And finally, since we hadn’t canceled flights, we had all of our customers showing up to the terminal and expecting to fly out. After crowds of customers who had waited for hours, or even days, learned that their flights were canceled, mayhem ensued, creating dangerous and angry crowd dynamics. That’s when our general counsel found himself on a ticket counter with a megaphone calling for the National Guard for help. It was a pretty good clue that things had gone seriously awry.

By day’s end, only 17 of JetBlue’s 156 scheduled flights were able to depart JFK. But our problems didn’t end when the ice let up. Over the next several days, we had a backlog of passengers that we normally would have re-booked on other airlines’ flights, but because of the holiday, those flights were also full.

Yet even as the situation went from bad to worse, we learned some valuable lessons. For one thing, our management team didn’t hide behind press quotes; instead, they took our message to people through social media and the internet, and we eventually received credit for being an early adopter of YouTube and social media.

The apology of our founder, David Neeleman, was recognized as a model corporate apology in an era when many companies were still employing the “no comment” approach. (We’ve since seen David’s expressions of sincere regret cited in several guidelines written by others on how best to handle corporate missteps.)

We also immediately and voluntarily enacted a so-called customer bill of rights that went above and beyond the Department of Transportation’s requirements and the fine print of our own contract of carriage. This allowed JetBlue to be forthright with customers and reinforce our commitment to acknowledging that we let them down. It went a long way toward recapturing some of the lost good will and showing that we took the event – and our customers’ suffering – seriously. We proactively issued credits, compensation and tickets without waiting for customers to file a claim.

And we learned that failing to invest in the future comes back to haunt a growing company. We saw the deficiencies in our communications with crew and customers alike, and we took steps to address the problem and we created a process to continue to improve. Further investments in infrastructure, including JFK’s Terminal 5, our improved IT systems and many others are presently helping to reduce the impact of sure-to-happen storms. We are still at the whim of Mother Nature, but we are much better prepared now to keep our customers safe, happy and comfortable when she throws a curveball.

Today my worst travel experiences are no longer my own. Instead, they’re when I learn about passengers we were unable to fly safely to their destinations because of storms, the inability to get crews rescheduled or other delays. I now know that all airlines are doing what they can. At JetBlue – inspired by the worst travel day in our history – we try especially hard, seeing each challenge as an opportunity to make passengers’ travels easier.

By Joel Peterson