The Public Relations Strategist

True Blue: After a Customer Relations Crisis, Lessons Learned at JetBlue -- Moving on After a Midwinter Meltdown

Publication Date: 2007, Summer

Source: SO02 Public Relations Strategist
Product Code: 6K-030709
Organization/Author/Firm: John Elsasser
Industry: Travel - Tourism - Hospitality / Transportation
Specialization(s): Crisis Management / Reputation Management / Corporate Communications
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There’s a framed February 2007 calendar on the wall of Todd Burke’s office at the JetBlue headquarters in Forest Hills, N.Y. Six days — Feb. 14 to Feb. 19 — are highlighted. Underneath is a message from the airline’s founder, David Neeleman: “We messed up. But JetBlue will be a better, stronger company going forward. We will never let this happen again.”

“It was a horrible situation,” says Burke, JetBlue’s vice president of corporate communications. Indeed, on Feb. 14, a winter storm crippled commercial air travel in the Northeast, with JetBlue’s service at home base John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York taking the brunt of the operational meltdown for nearly a week. Hundreds of passengers were stranded for hours in planes on the runways while even more people were left marooned inside the terminal. All told, JetBlue canceled 1,200 flights and lost $20 million in revenue during that period. Published reports said the airline handed out another $24 million in flight vouchers to its passengers.

Neeleman, who relinquished his CEO title in May but remains JetBlue’s chairman, has willingly admitted it was a monumental communications foul-up, telling The New York Times on Feb. 19 that he was “humiliated and mortified” by the airline’s response. (He wasn’t alone in that assessment.)

JetBlue’s damage control, featuring Neeleman as the airline’s public face, was immediate, apologetic and highlighted by a new Customer Bill of Rights, which detailed a compensation package for passengers. In the bill of rights, the company promised to take necessary action so that customers may deplane when facing a ground delay of more than five hours and to provide customers with food and drink, access to restrooms and, as necessary, medical treatment.

All this has gone over well with passengers. Market research firm J.D. Power and Associates has reported that JetBlue is back in the good graces of passengers according to its customer-satisfaction surveys.

On May 23, the amiable Burke, who joined JetBlue in November 2003, along with Jenny Dervin, the airline’s director of corporate communications since July 2005, talked with The Strategist. Burke and Dervin, both veterans of the airline industry, were friendly and forthcoming while discussing the February crisis and the challenges they’ve faced in recent months.