JetBlue woes may spur wider changes

The Baltimore Sun

When US Airways lost thousands of Christmas travelers' baggage for days in 2004, some industry consultants thought it might spell doom for the bankrupt airline. But it didn't.

The airline eventually took responsibility and fixed the problem by hiring hundreds of baggage handlers and spending millions of dollars on equipment. That's Crisis Management 101: Apologize, explain what happened and fix it.

This is what JetBlue Airways has been trying to do since it stranded passengers on planes on snowy New York runways Wednesday for more than 10 hours. The airline is expected to return to full service today after canceling scores of flights over the holiday weekend as it worked to get service on track.

But on the heels of a similar event in Texas over New Year's weekend and a general frustration with airline service, Jet- Blue's recovery might be slower, consultants and public relations professionals say. It could lead to a tipping point in the industry as a growing number of passengers say they aren't going to accept poor treatment anymore. And some are demanding rights backed by force of law.

That would be a change from the past several years as travelers' expectations sank amid the rise of discount airlines and rounds of cost-cutting by full-service carriers. Consultants say travelers have come to care most about cheap seats and convenient schedules - and, indeed, the low fares have prompted a record number of people to fly. But while they might be willing to forgo meals and pillows and even swallow delays and lost luggage without much complaining, travelers might make JetBlue and the rest of the industry pay a little more this time.

"JetBlue is unlucky because this happened to someone else in the industry recently," said Marc Jampole, president of the Pittsburgh-based crisis-management firm Jampole Communications Inc. "JetBlue becomes the poster child, and it doesn't matter right now that they score well in customer service rankings or if they apologize."

Jampole is referring to American Airlines, which stranded passengers on a plane on the ground in Austin, Texas, for more than nine hours. They were headed to Dallas from San Francisco but were diverted because of bad weather in Dallas.

That ordeal motivated passenger Kate Hanni to form the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. The group is pushing for federal legislation to, among other things, prevent airlines from keeping passengers sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours and compensate those bumped or delayed more than 12 hours with 150 percent of the ticket price.

The group is using JetBlue as another example of why legislation is needed.

"This is a tipping point," said Hanni, who spent 2 1/2 days getting from her home in Napa, Calif., to Mobile, Ala., that New Year's weekend. "Enough is enough. We don't believe them, any of the airlines, anymore. History shows us that they don't change or they change only temporarily after a debacle."

Hanni said yesterday that she has collected more than 11,500 signatures on a petition supporting legislation, about 800 of them since the JetBlue incident last week.

The airlines and some passenger groups do not support federal mandates, making passage uncertain. Still, lawmakers promise to introduce legislation and hold hearings.

For its part, JetBlue said it will soon offer details of its own passenger bill of rights that spells out what customers can expect when there is a delay or cancellation. Bryan Baldwin, an airline spokesman, said changes are warranted, not legislation.

"Impacts remain to be seen long term," he said. "We hope our past record means something to our customers. We know people are frustrated, and we can't apologize enough."

JetBlue Airways said yesterday that it would immediately begin paying compensation, ranging from $25 toward a future flight to a round-trip ticket, to passengers kept waiting by the airline's mistakes.

Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers, said market forces are a better way to push change at the airlines.

"In the case of JetBlue, the operational meltdown cost it millions of dollars in near-term lost revenue and higher costs and badly tarnished its superior customer service image," he said. "The effectiveness of management in responding with changes to policies and procedures will determine its future success. The marketplace is holding JetBlue accountable, and like competitors before them, the pounding will lead to positive change."

JetBlue has grown during the past seven years into a force in the discount market and is known for offering extras like television service and blue potato chips on its flights. It has key hubs in New York, Washington, Boston and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on the East Coast and Oakland and Long Beach, Calif., on the West Coast. It does not fly from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Winter weather across much of the country forced the airline to cancel almost a quarter of its flights yesterday from several cities.

The negative attention is unusual for JetBlue. The airline has ranked No. 1 overall for the past three years in one of the best known industry service rankings. Dean E. Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University's W. Frank Barton School of Business and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating report, said JetBlue will want to fix problems fast because that is part of its corporate culture - and the bad publicity is costing it money.

"They'll recover slowly," Headley said. "They didn't anticipate the size of this mess. Others have been through it before, maybe not to this extent, so they know what to do. Jet- Blue should have gotten people off those planes."

In the end, Headley said that fares and schedules matter more than one bad experience. And while those on the stranded plane might be lost forever as customers, most others are not.

Some passengers might have little choice but to use an airline on which they had a bad experience because the carrier dominates the region or they are tied into a frequent-flier program and do not want to lose rewards, Headley said. Others who have had good experiences on the airline are likely to forgive one big lapse in judgment and service.

Further, Headley said, many accept that flying today just isn't fun.

In 2000, there were 5.29 mishandled bags per 1,000 customers. In 2006, there were 6.73, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Heightened security has led to new rules, longer lines and more flight delays.

Yet, complaints are dropping. In 2000, there were more than 20,560 complaints to the Federal Aviation Administration about U.S. airlines. Last year, there were 6,450.

JetBlue might have to weather complaints from this storm a little longer than usual, Headley said.

"They will lose some revenue and maybe some passengers," he said. "But they'll get the good will back."

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