Haven’t we been down this runway before? The weather gets bad, JetBlue messes up, and passengers are outraged. At least this time they were venting from airport lounges and the chill of their own homes rather than being stuck on the tarmac.
To be sure, winter storms followed by record-setting, flight-canceling cold that has been scudding its way east from the heartland is affecting all airlines. But JetBlue seemed particularly vulnerable to both the weather and to the way it handled the situation from a PR POV.
The New York Times’ Jad Mouawad writes that “the combination of bad weather and the new Federal Aviation Administration rules led [JetBlue] to cancel all of its flights into and out of Boston and the three New York area airports for 17 hours starting Monday afternoon.”
The carrier earlier canceled 31% of its schedule Sunday, Jack Nicas and Susan Carey report in the Wall Street Journal — the highest cancellation rate among the major airlines, according to Flightstats.com data. And nearly 75% of its flights were “delayed by more than 44 minutes in arriving, the highest percentage in the domestic industry.”
JetBlue took to a blog post Sunday to explain the cancellations. It begins by trying to put us in their snow boots.
“For most people, digging out after a snow storm is about brushing off the car, clearing the driveway, and making sure the roads are clear. For a 24/7 operation like an airline, though, it can be a little more involved, and digging out is only the first step,” the lede tells us.
Add the new FAA rules governing the amount of uninterrupted rest that pilots need to get to the disruptions in the “handoff” of “out of position” planes and crew during major weather events, and the net result is a lot of “frustration” among customers.
But judging by the comments, the post only seemed to exacerbate the frustration of the folks affected by the cancellations.
Part of it was substance. “What makes you any different than all the other airlines? Everyone is playing by the same FAA rules. You people got caught unprepared and didn’t do your jobs properly. That’s the truth … end of story,” posts one commenter.
Part of it was narrative. A woman wrote about her 86-year-old mother-in-law with lung cancer who “waited 7 hours at logan yesterday while you guys dicked around with your flights and pilots, only to have the flight cancelled at 1am.”
Part of it was style. “why is this an anonymous posting? i truly get and understand there is some serious challenges for you. But where is the face of jetblue ? to me this is a career/brand moment. the pres/coo/cmo should all be personally sharing messages,” wrote another passenger with some marketing chops.
Well, “weather-related disruptions aren’t unique to JetBlue, Chief Operating Officer Robert Maruster told CNBC yesterday, citing the new U.S. rules curbing pilots’ work hours and airport closings as also contributing to the cancellations,” reports Bloomberg’s Tim Catts. “There were a lot of unforeseen events that were really outside of our control that were impacting our ability to operate correctly,” Maruster said.
As for those new FAA rules, they were first announced in December 2011.
“They had two years to anticipate this (work hour rule) and to adjust accordingly," Sean Cassidy, VP of the Air Line Pilots Association tells CNN’s Katia Hetter and Rene Marsh. "So I think it's overly simplistic to suggest that they could ascribe this disruption — which happens to coincide with this major, major winter snowstorm — and just hang it all on that rule-making change.”
Adding to its woes, “The airline also said its toll-free customer service number was suffering from unspecified ‘issues,’ and asked for travelers’ patience while that line was restored,” Bloomberg reports. At least one Tampa-area resident had to drive to the airport yesterday to speak to an agent about a flight today, BayNews9’s Josh Rojas reports.
You may recall that customer satisfaction for the airline industry as whole is rather poor — only subscription TV and Internet service companies ranked lower in the American Customer Satisfaction Index issued last June. But JetBlue was at the top of the list in customer satisfaction for the second year running. Clearly, it’s not the only airline that needs to rethink how it handles weather from both operational and communications perspectives.
In another New York Times piece this morning, Joe Sharkey writes about his own unpleasant experience over the weekend with a United flight from Atlanta to Tucson that was cancelled, and an alternately pleasant experience from a Delta rep who came to the rescue. That was in the context of reporting about 18,000 cancellations overall from Thursday through yesterday afternoon.
He ends with a quote from Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org: “Many airlines prefer to dump costs on passengers and have the entire country suffer from an air transportation slowdown, rather than having the reserves to do proper contingency planning.”
Among those contingencies must be determining who says what when and how.