On day nine of the saga of the Valentine's Day meltdown at JetBlue ( JBLU), CEO David Neeleman held a conference call with analysts to discuss the incident once again. He recounted how the airline's planes got trapped in an ice storm at Kennedy International Airport; how its systems broke down, delaying its recovery for six days; and how it has taken steps to fix its problems and instituted a passenger bill of rights. Currently, bookings are steady, he indicated. "Our revenue folks feel that the bookings are rolling in and don't really see any damage," he said. As he has no doubt done countless times during the past week, Neeleman reiterated that JetBlue has learned its lesson, that "those six days will burn bright in our memory for a long time" and that, if it were to happen again, "we will be much more prepared as a company to handle it." In a 24-hour news cycle where the public, or at least the media, demands apologies for mistakes, Neeleman has emerged as Mr. Contrition on an extended run. He has asked forgiveness on the "Today" show, the "Late Show", the front page of The New York Times, ABC, CBS, CNBC, CNN and Fox, in various newspaper interviews and on a teleconference with more than 100 reporters. Perhaps the time has come to stop apologizing. "This has gone on way too long," said aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "It's a cause celebre when it shouldn't be. It involves nine flights, out of hundreds of thousands, yet you'd think the whole industry was collapsing."
Like most fiascos, this one began with a single wrong decision. JetBlue sent planes from the gate to the runway in bad weather at Kennedy on Feb. 14, hoping snow would turn to rain. Other airlines at the airport that morning were generally more cautious. Caution is not the same as wisdom. But in this case, weather conditions worsened. The winter storm that came through the area created sheets of ice on the runway, Neeleman said. Nine JetBlue planes were stuck on the tarmac for more than five hours, and most of the rest of its operations at its single hub were also halted. In phase two of the crisis, the impact of a single bad day cascaded through JetBlue's infrastructure. The carrier couldn't get enough employees to the airport, couldn't get enough reservations agents to work overtime and, most importantly, couldn't identify flight crew members whose allowable flight time had not been used up during the delays. That led to cancellations. JetBlue called off 1,096 flights between Feb. 14 and Feb. 19, about one-third of the total. Unfortunately for JetBlue, it all happened in the world's media capital, vastly increasing the coverage. The next phase of the crisis began Tuesday, when normal operations were finally restored. Since then, Neeleman has held conference calls with reporters and analysts, and JetBlue has released earnings guidance regarding potential first-quarter losses.
By and large, the airline industry seems to agree that JetBlue's operational mistake -- moving planes from the gate to the runway -- was understandable. However, the breakdown of its crew notification and reservations operations has raised questions. Boyd sees an analogy with People Express, a 1980s low-cost carrier that tried to grow too fast. "When things went well, everything was fine, but you have one glitch in the system and everything shut down," he said. At this point, JetBlue doesn't seem to have handled its problems as well as Frontier ( FRNT) did after a snowstorm shut down its single hub in Denver for 48 hours during Christmas week. Frontier has said it too may have been too aggressive in sending planes out, causing crews and planes to be stranded in distant cities when the Denver airport reopened. Still, four days later Frontier operated a nearly full schedule. Nevertheless, Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said he sympathizes with JetBlue. One reason, he said, is that most JetBlue crew members commute to the hub, making it difficult to maintain contact during the crisis. "If you know where your crews are, it's easier to get them matched up with flights," he said. Additionally, all of JetBlue's 1,065 reservations agents work at home in the Salt Lake City area, and JetBlue couldn't get in touch when it needed to have them work extra hours. By contrast, Frontier maintains reservations centers in Denver and Las Cruces, N.M. Its agents, at least the ones who could get to work, were all in one place, ready to help out. "We had some people set up air mattresses and sleep in the office," Hodas said. "Others stayed in hotels nearby."