JetBlue’s Deja Vu: Sort of But not Exactly

In 2007, JetBlue received intense media coverage (traditional and social) for stranding passengers on the tarmac, in a snow storm at the JFK airport in new York City for up to 14 hours on St. Valentine’s Day.  It became known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” for JetBlue.  JetBlue became an icon for crisis communication as its CEO, David Neeleman, began a series of media interviews to apologized for the situation and announce JetBlue’s “Customer Bills of Rights.”  The Bill of Rights set up a compensation program for flight delays including being stuck on the tarmac.  Neeleman even appeared in YouTube video to offer the apology.  Though people were horrified that passengers could be stuck on a plane for 14 hours in the snow for a supposedly three hour flight, JetBlue was generally praised for its response.  In part, the crisis was viewed as an extreme event that was unlikely to be repeated.  The snow storm was unusually bad and the planes just happened to leave the gate at an inopportune time.  This would not happen again, probably.

JetBlue seemed to experience déjà vu in October of 2011.  On Saturday, October 29, JetBlue Flight 504 departed Fort Lauderdale, FL for Newark, NJ.  An unusual October snow storm moved into the northeast causing flight problems for Newark and other nearby airports.  Due to the weather, Flight 504 was re-routed to Hartford, Connecticut (Bradley International Airport).  It is not unusual to re-route a plane because of weather.  Neither the airline nor the passengers like re-routing.  Passengers are not where they should be neither are the planes and crews.  The airline has to sort out how to get the passengers, planes, and crews to where they should be.  In short, re-routing is unpleasant for all involved.  But the problems with Flight 504 were just beginning. 

Flight 504 arrived at Bradley International at 1:07 pm.  The passengers left the flight at 9:00pm.  That was over seven hours on a tarmac waiting to de-plane.  JetBlue management was having a form of déjà vu.  They had a freak snow storm and people stuck on the tarmac.  The situation was not exactly the same as in 2007.  In 2007, the planes had left the gate with the hopes of taking off from the airport.  The planes could not takeoff nor could they return to the gate.  The circumstances that lead to the plane being on the tarmac were different but the had the same general outcome:  passengers stuck on the tarmac, due to snow, for a long period of time.  Moreover, there were the same issues of the plane running out of water and food while bathrooms broke down as well.  Here is a short description for a Washington Post Story about the experience:

“The toilets were backed up. When you flushed, nothing would happen,” said Andrew Carter, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel of Florida, who was traveling to cover the Miami Dolphins game against the New York Giants. His plane took off from Fort Lauderdale for Newark Liberty International Airport at around 9 a.m. After being diverted to Hartford, the plane sat on the tarmac between around 1:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., he said.

The situation was complicated further by passengers with medical conditions.  In fact, the news reports indicated that the reason the situation was resolved was the need for medical attention. 

Here is short chronology of the situation based upon a news report:

“At the three-hour mark they told us by law they had to let us off the plane. They were waiting for a tug to take us to a gate. We heard that same message at the four-hour mark, and continuing until state troopers boarded the plane for a medical emergency,” said Robert, a passenger who did not want to give his last name.

A paraplegic on the flight had a medical issue, and about seven hours after the plane landed.  It was at that point that police and firefighters came onboard to render medical assistance.  

“Still on the plane. We haven’t moved. Now EWR closed. Getting ugly in here. People yelling wanting to get off,” Andrew Carter said via Twitter just before 6 p.m.

One passenger noted at the end of the above news report:  “I’ll never fly JetBlue again, and I’ll never fly through Connecticut again”

CNN reported the following as JetBlue’s response: 

JetBlue apologized for the situation and blamed it on a “confluence of events,” including intermittent power outages which complicated matters.

“We worked with the airport to secure services, but our flights were six of the 23 reported diversions into Hartford, including international flights (picture big jets carrying hundreds of people), the airline said on its website. “Getting all the flights deplaned at the same time in a small airport is not unlike trying to get an elephant into a smart car; it’s not an easy fit.”

Passengers deplaned around 9 p.m., according to JetBlue.

Here is more of the JetBlue statement:

 “JetBlue is doing everything possible to ensure our customers affected by today’s unusual combination of weather and infrastructure issues are being well cared for. We apologize for the experience.”

Unfortunately, no official statement appeared on the JetBlue web site within 24 hours of the crisis.  Most of the news stories noted a representative for the Bradley International Airport was not available for comment.  Hence, the airport was silent immediately after the crisis.

The social media was filled with stories, including some video from the plane, and commentary about Flight 504.  Here are some comments from the Washington Post web site about the story:

As long as people continue to willingly do business with corporations who care not a damn about them — due in the main to Congress’s refusal to hold those corporations responsible… for anything — then people have only themselves to blame for how they are treated. Want customer service at the airlines to improve? Simple: STOP. BUYING. TICKETS.

What is it about airlines that renders them so incapable of dealing with what should be a relatively simple problem? If the plane isn’t ready to go, allow passengers to disembark. It’s incredible that this scenario keeps repeating itself, and the airlines almost never offer any reasonable explanation once the ordeal is ended. It’s as if they’re just clueless.

Here are comments for the Huffington Post about Flight 504:

I thought it was good reportage to get all the facts before publishing a story? The 3 hr. rule was violated, by whom? Jet Blue who seems to be getting the brunt of the bad press. Or the Connecticu­t airport authoritie­s?

This happens every year. You’d think after all this time they’d learn how to deal with something like snow.

Update

JetBlue has gone social in its response, similar to the 2007 crisis.  A statement about the crisis appears on the JetBlue blog, BlueTales.  Here is the posting:

October 30, 2011

Dreaming Of A White Halloween? Information Regarding This Weekend’s Storm

Some people dream of a white Christmas; apparently Mother Nature was dreaming of a white Halloween this weekend. Winter reared its ugly head earlier than usual yesterday, causing a major crease in air travel.

On top of the obvious operational hiccups to flying airplanes in bad weather - wind, rain, hail, snow and ice – an additional unfortunate mix of circumstances caused a messy day operationally and has made the recovery for us and other airlines operating along the East Coast more challenging.

During the storm, multiple instrument failures occurred at JFK and Newark, affecting all carriers. This equipment is needed for flights to land when visibility is low; while it was out of service, both airports stopped accepting arrivals and eventually, a number of flights had to divert elsewhere to get more fuel.

Six of our flights diverted to Hartford. We worked with the airport to secure services, but our flights were six of the 23 reported diversions into Hartford, including international flights (picture big jets carrying hundreds of people). Getting all the flights deplaned at the same time in a small airport is not unlike trying to get an elephant into a smart car; it’s not an easy fit. As if things weren’t challenging enough, the airport experienced intermittent power outages, which made refueling and jetbridge deplaning difficult (not to mention the roads there were bad, which put a wrench in getting buses to the airport to alternatively get everyone where they needed to go). Temporary loss of de-icing capability added yet another challenge to being able to get planes out in Hartford.

Diversions in general, especially weather-related, are something that we plan for regularly. If heavy winds or a blizard are coming in, we look at our major cities and secondary cities in advance, sending the area’s airports a list 24-48 hours out asking what their capabilities are for handling diversions. We look at things like: does the airport have TSA on hand, buses, staffing, customs agents, etc. so we have it ahead of time. Flights are planned with alternates in mind and fueled accordingly.

Most diversions during weather are what we call “fuel and go” events. They happen specifically so we can get enough gas to navigate around the weather that’s built up in a certain area. Sometimes, the diversion is simply to wait out the storm.  In the case of Hartford, unfortunately, a power outage and failure of back up power resulted in the fuel supply being disrupted and the fueling of all airline diversions was halted.  The capability to refuel aircraft was restored later, after which we planned our four extra sections for today (3 to JFK, 1 to EWR) and approximately 500 of the roughly 700 customers who were diverted there are booked on them today.

A special thank you goes out to John, our General Manager Hartford and his team for working through the night and into today to recover the operation there. Another thank you goes out to JFK who sent additional crewmembers and leadership to Hartford to assist in preparing our aircraft and processing customers for today’s extra flights. And a big thank you goes out to our customers for their patience during this weekend’s challenges.

We apologize to those impacted by this confluence of events, as it remains our responsibly to not simply provide safe and secure travel, but a comfortable experience as well.

We’re offering customers traveling to/from the New York area today fee waivers to change or cancel their flights. Check jetblue.com for the full details and be sure to check the status of your flight before heading to the airport.

The web site link has operational information to help passengers cope with the disruption.  This includes waiving the change/cancel fees for those affected by the storm. 

JetBlue also has a video on their web site and linked to YouTube.  The video is an apology from Rob Maruster, Jet Blue’s chief operating officer.  Here are some of the reactions to his video:

 

  • Fire Him Now. No Bonus No Excuses Dock His Pay!!
    • Lame
    • You Lie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I’m reading some of these comments so far and everybody is quick to pass judgement. What the media not telling you is that the airport had power outages very frequently and the reason for all those planes was because Boston airport turned away a lot of international and dosmetic diverting flights not because there system was down or they reach capacity but because Libyian fighters was more important. I’m not trying to push the blame one way or another because someone will take the fall for this
  • Rob- Were you the VP of Airports the last time this happened in 2007? Barger was the COO and it was the Founder who took the fall for your incompetence. It looks like you two haven’t learned a thing, in fact it has gotten worse. Jetblue’s customers and crew members deserve ALOT better. It is time to clean house and bring in more competent management!!!!!
  • You need to do better than this. This is not the first time this has happened. The excuses have worn thin.
  • Mr Maruster’s body language speaks far louder than his words, and he is just going through the motions to give us the impression he and his ilk will correct this problem post haste. This man know full well that lessons learned from multiple events going back to February 2007 have been set aside, all for the sake to save a few more bucks and most likely increase his executive bonus. He should be tossed for his deliberate actions to ignore what is already well documented at Forest Hills.
  • And a third chance after the next storm and a fourth chance after the storm after that. And so on.. and so on… Your pilot’s recodring to air trafiic control was played and he said his own company would not help. Bad, real bad.

Question to Consider:

1.  Do you think JetBlue’s initial response will be effective?  Why or why not?

2.  Is it ethical for the Bradley International Airport not to comment early in the crisis? Why or why not?

3.  If you worked for Bradley International Airport, what would you recommend as their crisis response and why would you offer that particular advice?

4.  What role does the 2007 event play in this crisis?

5.  What do the online comments tell you about stakeholder reactions?

6.  How could JetBlue use the comments to help them evaluate and to shape follow-up crisis messages?

7.  What role does social media play in escalating this crisis?  How can it help to de-escalate it?

8.  Based on the video comments, how would you judge reactions to the video apology?

9.  What are the advantages of JetBlue using social media in their crisis response?  The disadvantages?

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