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Customer Inter@ction Solutions
March 2007 - Volume 25 / Number 10
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Looks Like JetBlue Picked The Wrong Day To Quit Sniffing Glue

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions


By now, everybody knows of the JetBlue debacle. The airline kept planes full of people on iced runways for up to 10 hours last month and canceled up to 1,000 flights during and in the week following a nasty winter storm that blew through much of the central and eastern part of the country, particularly New York’s JFK airport, JetBlue’s hub. There were reports of parents running out of diapers for their children and being forced to tear up clothing to make impromptu nappies. The planes ran out of food, the toilets clogged up. Some passengers and members of the news media began uttering phrases like “kidnapping” and “unlawful imprisonment.”

It took the airline a week to get back on schedule. Estimates regarding how much it will cost JetBlue reach up to $30 million in refunds and vouchers. The chairman of Jet Blue, David Neeleman, did everything short of getting on his knees and weeping and beating his breast in his groveling apologies, and the airline has proposed a Customer Bill of Rights (which can be viewed at www.tmcnet.com/474.1) so future nightmares of this magnitude don’t happen again. Both are good steps. (Someone in the company must have been reading the case study that details the picture-perfect handling by Johnson & Johnson of the cyanide-laced Tylenol deaths back in 1982. The skillful way Johnson & Johnson handled that incident is still discussed in business schools today as the pinnacle of public relations.)

But what I’m wondering is this: all the news articles mentioned the weather, the tarmac, the planes and FAA rules that disallow flight crews from flying for longer than a certain amount of hours, limiting the amount of flights that can take off.
But surely, this being a storm beyond anyone’s control, why did only JetBlue stumble so badly? If those reasons listed above were the only reasons, all the airlines that regularly fly out of JFK should have been in the same boat.
But they weren’t.

Which implies internal management/customer service problems — but nobody said too much about those.
The airline acknowledged that it failed to cancel flights in advance, when they knew the storm was approaching, which left an abnormal amount of planes grounded at JFK airport and its reservation system hopelessly overloaded. But surely all the other airlines had hopelessly overloaded reservation systems, too.

The reason I’m so interested is that JetBlue used to be ranked number one in terms of customer service. Those of us who have high hopes for the home agent model are (or have been) pleased by this news: JetBlue’s customer service agents are almost entirely home-based. The company’s high ranking in customer service seemed to vindicate and recommend the home agent model.

Now this. How do you go from the top of the heap to the pit in the cellar with Precious in one day?
Did something break?

Among reports that some callers were left on hold for longer than an hour, the airline admitted that its network of approximately 2,000 agents, most of them home-based, were unable to handle the flood of angry calls.
Aha. Why not?

Additionally, partnership arrangements with competitive carriers to offload passengers onto other carriers’ flights (a practice known as “inter-lining”) are expensive to forge, and it is apparently not unusual for low-cost carriers such as JetBlue to skip these arrangements.

Aha again. Low-cost solutions, just like budget airlines, work great when everything goes right. But cut operations too fine on the side of cost containment, and the proverbial excrement hits the fan (at this point, it’s hard not to conjure up images from the movie Airplane!, but that’s not important right now) when something catastrophic occurs.

Will JetBlue recover? Most certainly. The airline has many fans and over the years it has done a lot of things right, which will go a long way toward inducing its loyal customers to forgive a slip-up, even one of this magnitude. The company seems genuinely contrite and eager to fix the elements that went wrong. Will things have to change, including its customer service processes and its disaster recovery methodologies? Again, most certainly. Will it be quite as cheap as it was before? Who knows. The money’s going to have to come from somewhere to strengthen the call center and back-office structure so such a thing doesn’t happen again. Would any of the large U.S. carriers, most of whom are frequently lambasted for marginal customer service, be as forgiven as JetBlue will be? Not a chance. I still haven’t forgiven American Airlines for deciding not to hand out even a microscopic bag of pretzels anymore.

There’s a moral here somewhere: treat your customers well 99 percent of the time, and they’ll forgive you — in time — when you do screw up the other one percent. CIS
By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director,
Customer Inter@ction Solutions

The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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