JetBlue terminal

It could have been worse. I could’ve been stranded on the runway for eight hours. Instead, I was stuck at the JetBlue terminal for 12 hours last Thursday before finding out my flight was cancelled. [1]

Here are some communication lessons learned from the fiasco:

Put all your soldiers on the front lines. Jet Blue’s corporate offices are located near JFK so they brought in a bunch of people who normally work there to help out at the terminal. They wore Jet Blue vests and/or badges and wandered around the terminal answering questions, directing customers, and listening to complaints. Granted, a lot of these people didn’t know much more than the passengers but, hey, at least they were there. A lot of customers just wanted to vent and know someone was listening. You need boots on the ground to do the little things. I saw one rep ask an irate customer for a business card so he could follow up with him later. A small step, but it just might save a customer.

Be the guy with the megaphone. The PA system by the gates was pitiful. The volume was feeble and you could barely make out the thin announcements (which were similar to the unintelligible conductor announcements on the NYC subways). People were desperate to know what was going on. Enter megaphone man. Rumor was that he actually worked as legal counsel to JetBlue. He went to each gate with a megaphone and updated all the passengers with the latest info. Then he’d walk toward the rear of that gate and repeat the info again for those who hadn’t heard the first time. It wasn’t always good news. But at least an actual person was there, communicating something clearly.

Have an operator reserve force. A lot of the JetBlue reps on the scene encouraged passengers to call (800) Jet-Blue for more info. The problem was the phone lines were so jampacked there was no way to get through. This forced already irate customers to wait in lines for hours in order to find out information that easily could have been shared over the phone. The result: Anger builds and the people onsite had to deal with it.

Take it personally. When people are stuck on board a plane for eight hours with no clean toilets, they take it personally. And when your company promise is to “bring humanity back to air travel,” you better take it personally too.

The founder and chief executive of JetBlue says he’s “humiliated and mortified” by what happened. He’s taking responsibility and promising real changes. That’s what customers want to hear.

Mr. Neeleman said he would enact what he called a customer bill of rights that would financially penalize JetBlue — and reward passengers — for any repeat of the current upheaval. He said he would propose a plan to pay customers, after some amount of time, by the hour for being stranded on a plane…He says knows he has to deliver. “I can flap my lips all I want,” he said. “Talk is cheap. Watch us.”

Your site is a PR weapon. Neeleman’s emotional response was nowhere to be found at though. The latest JetBlue news at the site is the addition of 3 blind moose Merlot and Chardonnay to flights. Hmm, is that really the big JetBlue news right now? And the last entry at the CEO’s blog at the site has the title “2007 Takes Off in the Right Direction.”

Granted, there’s a link that says “Operational Interruptions” in the site’s header but it only takes you to a bunch of sterile, boilerplate text (e.g, “JetBlue continues to experience cancellations and delays as a result of Wednesday’s ice storm in the Northeast. Please check the status of your flight online before proceeding to the airport.”)

The site needs to become the online version of the guy with the megaphone. There should be a letter from the CEO. There should be an apology. There should be details about changes that are going to happen to prevent this from occurring again. If they can’t easily make changes to the current site, they should set up a special crisis site to deal specifically with this debacle. As it is now, the company’s online presence seems disconnected from reality.

[1] Fyi, here’s the gritty details of my day at JFK (others had it worse): There was a big storm on Wednesday. But by Thursday things had cleared up. I had a 1:15pm flight to Chicago. I checked online and the site said the flight had been delayed until 2:15pm. So I arrived at the airport at 1pm. I checked in and the rep told me my flight had been cancelled and I was now flying standby on the 8pm flight. He took my bag and checked it in. He said if I had any questions, to ask at Special Services check-in. I went there and waited in line for over an hour. They told me that the 8pm flight wouldn’t actually leave until 11:45pm. And even then there would only be a 50-50 chance that I would get onto that flight. There were no other flights available until Monday. I decided to wait it out and take my chances. I stuck around the airport and then, at around 10:30pm, they told us the flight had been cancelled. We had to reschedule by waiting in another huge line or calling an 800 number. The 800 number was jammed though and it was impossible to get through. I decided to worry about it later. Now I had to get my bag back. This was another two hour wait. No one knew where the bags would come out or when they would come out. (But they did know that the bags could not be delivered.) Everyone was frazzled. The baggage handlers looked like they had just emerged from a war zone. Finally, at about 12:45am, the bags came out. I headed home. On the way, I tried calling the 800 number again and got put on hold. While on hold, there was a recurring message that said, “JetBlue isn’t the only way to fly…but it ought to be.”