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JetBlue: After the meltdown

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Before sliding off his pedestal following JetBlue’s ice storm debacle of last winter, founder and former CEO David Neeleman did a notably great thing:

He proved that he truly cares about his customers.

What happened: In February, two inches of ice at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York forced more than 1,000 flight cancellations, trapping passengers on planes for up to nine hours and snarling JetBlue’s operations for almost a week.

The airline handed out refunds and credits, apologized profusely and took the bullet for bad decisions and buffaloed employees. Neeleman said it was his job to make sure no one in his company ever forgets what happened. To a certain extent, it worked.

“The single most important thing a company needs to show in a crisis is that it cares,” says Bruce Blythe, head of the consulting firm Crisis Management International. “ That’s not a feeling. It’s a behavior.”

Maybe JetBlue beat its breast a little too much. Whatever the case, it took most of the heat for the weather-induced fiasco. True, Delta and American also stranded people. But they sorted it out sooner, and JetBlue’s customers simply expect the upstart with TVs in every leather seatback to treat them better.

So, where did Neeleman slip up?

He’s an entrepreneur, not an operations guy, and he didn’t have the backup systems in place to handle a major foul-up. The protracted mess also suggests that his people didn’t feel powerful enough to step in and correct the situation on their own … and that managers didn’t know what was happening.

Lesson: Let entrepreneurs be entrepreneurs, and operations people operate. Fortunately, Neeleman had the wisdom not to fight his directors when they asked him to step down as CEO, so now he can go forward and do what he does best.

—Adapted from “Lessons from the Tarmac,” Chuck Salter, Fast Company.

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