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Two Monumental Airline Screwups -- One JetBlue Recovery

Two Monumental Airline Screwups -- One JetBlue RecoveryNot much love was flying JetBlue's way on Valentine's Day 2007.

You remember the stories. Trapped in the teeth of a sudden storm, JetBlue customers were stranded on New York runways, some for more than six hours, and many were delayed days to reach their ultimate destinations. How do you make it good to more than a hundred thousand SERIOUSLY cheesed off customers?

Flash forward to London's Heathrow Airport in late March of this year, where British Airways debuted its magnificent -- magnificently bad, it turned out -- Terminal 5 facility. With severe mechanical and organizational breakdowns in the first few minutes of operation, 254 flights were canceled and 15,000 bags are still being returned to the grounded.

Jet Blue responded to disaster with an aggressive damage control campaign, as documented in a Harvard Business School case study. What did the airline do?

  • CEO David Neeleman issued a very public mea culpa to the more than 131,000 customers affected by the cancellations, and offered varying levels of compensation up to a full refund and a voucher for a free roundtrip flight.
  • The company created a Customer Bill of Rights that details compensation for a variety of departure and ground delays, including $1,000 if a customer is involuntarily bumped from a flight through overbooking.
  • Organizational changes have been made including better tracking of crew locations, cross-training of employees, and improved access to JetBlue's reservation and rebooking systems.
It worked. It seems JetBlue's once sunny reputation has been restored. But across the pond, it's not as clear that British Airways is going to be able to execute as clean a recovery from the T5 disaster, which Alistair Carmichael, a Member of Parliament, termed "a national disgrace." The problems just may be too ingrained, suggests Harvard Online blogger Gill Corkindale.

What went wrong? What didn't, asks Corkindale.

On the operational side, there were technical errors, mechanical failures, and little system testing. On the management side, there was arrogance, complacency, poor communication, and a refusal to listen to staff and technical experts. Staff were poorly trained, morale was low, and goodwill had long evaporated.
Thanks to the debacle, you are now in charge at T5. What should you do? Can you learn from the JetBlue experience?

(JetBlue image by Mr. Mystery. CC 2.0)