The JetBlue Post Mortem, Part 1: What Went Wrong?

Last Updated Feb 22, 2007 8:10 PM EST

Its been a little over a week since JetBlue's Valentine's Day meltdown, and there's lots to learn from the airline's blunders. I'll be looking at the root causes of JetBlue's icy Valentine's Day nightmare, how the airline has been mopping up the mess, and what comes next for the rest of the airline industry.

The core diagnosis: An ineffective "shoestring communications system" caused the initial screwups on Valentine's Day, but the debacle also exposed key management shortcomings that compounded JetBlue's woes. Strategically, JetBlue wants to get big fast, but as the company has expanded, its management processes and communications didn't keep pace. From Legal Ease:

"The airline grew rapidly, but its systems didn't keep up with the growth. There wasn't a good system for pilots and flight crews to communicate with the company. Emergency control personnel weren't properly trained. Management was weak, and, according to Neeleman, "lacking in depth." People were out of position and there was no good way to find them and redirect them to where they were needed."

Making matters worse, JetBlue never had to deal with a crisis of this scale, so the airline struggled to make basic operational decisions. From A New Start:

"The airline is also known for not canceling flights even if that means severe delays. And that is where problems started...But the bigger problem was the fact that since the company never cancels a lot of flights; it didn't know what to do when it was finally forced to. So, with around 25% of its schedule canceled, Jet Blue was overwhelmed with logistics such as scheduling pilots and airline attendants because its systems were not built to handle cancellations effectively. If Jet Blue had swallowed the bitter pill and canceled more flights on Wednesday and canceled them earlier (like other airlines) it could have gotten back on its feet faster."

But the start of JetBlue's woes came from its lean and mean cost structure that keeps fares low -- but which also means there are fewer employees on hand to help out in a crisis. From Barbara's Blog:

"The budget airlines are especially skimpy when it comes to human employees. In late 2006, Neeleman announced plans to reduce its number of full-time employees per plane from 93 to 80. He should rethink that, since the major reason JetBlue couldn’t get back off the ground after the Valentine’s Day storm was that it lacks the personnel to connect crews to their flights. Pilots and flight attendants remained stuck in their hotels while passengers slept on airport floors."

The bottom line is this: JetBlue's management and systems didn't keep pace with the airline's growth, inexperience slowed decision making, and a slimmed down workforce left the company short-handed when the weather got tough. JetBlue got away with having a trim workforce for years, but it caught up with them last week, and it was a customer service disaster. It may be time for JetBlue to start doing some hiring.