Five things JetBlue could have done better

Last week, JetBlue received a chilly reception from customers when it announced it was temporarily canceling flights in New York and Boston.

Last week, JetBlue received a chilly reception from customers when it announced it was temporarily canceling flights in all three New York area airports and Boston from Monday afternoon through Tuesday morning. The company initially claimed this was due in part to the weather over the weekend and new FAA rules regarding pilot rest. After some backlash, JetBlue backed away from its statement on the rules and said it wasn't a major operational factor.

Although JetBlue was active online and on social media, clearly the airline did not have the resources to respond in a timely manner to customers and rebook the estimated 150,000 passengers that were affected. Angry customers took out their frustrations on social media, complaining of website outages, upwards of three hour hold times to the call center, poor communication, and cancellations of rebooked flights. 

I'm typically a loyal fan of JetBlue – an airline that has learned some hard lessons in customer service in the past, but seems to always work hard to win its customers back. However, in this instance, there are a number of things the carrier could have done to mitigate the public outcry and minimize the reputation damage:

1. Apologize (even if it's not your fault).
The opening line of JetBlue's blog post from January 4 claimed, “One thing is for sure, the beginning of 2014 sure hasn't been kind to US aviation!” If you are about to cancel my flight, as a passenger, I really don't care how tough you've had it. That definitely did not set the right tone.

2. Don't blame others.
Blaming an FAA regulation that had been on the books for more than a year or trying to out all the other airlines that had to cancel more flights than you is juvenile and irrelevant to the customer. The customer has a ‘social contract' and an actual ticket with JetBlue. I can't get a refund from the FAA.

3. Have a plan of action. Communicate it.
If you gathered the executive and operational teams to make the decision to cancel all of these flights, take a few more minutes to decide how you are going to compensate passengers and let them know how, and when, they will receive compensation. Although JetBlue did communicate a clear compensation program three days later, it seemed ‘too little, too late' for many customers. If the airline had shared the information with passengers before they were stranded at the airport or on ‘hold hell' for hours, they could have made better choices about how to navigate their travel dilemmas.

4. Have a crisis plan with contingency resources.
Any airline should expect and will experience acts of nature that severely affect its operations.  If you have three critical modes of communication with passengers – at the ticket counter, online, and on the phone – you need to have backup resources if those methods fail or are overloaded. Although I don't have insider details on JetBlue's operations, based on customer responses it seems there were no alternative routes of communicating with the company. Perhaps a contingency (contract) call center, or ‘dark' website that goes live only in crises, text messages to passengers, or customer service resolutions through social media could have minimized the damage.

5. Be sincere.
Mistakes happen. An immediate, sincere apology that reflects the tone and gravity of the situation was called for here, and it seems that JetBlue didn't get the memo. Facebook and Twitter updates remained peppy and seemingly oblivious to passengers' personal turmoil. Although this was not the type of crisis where lives were lost or people were injured, customers missed weddings, funerals, vacations, business opportunities, loved ones, and more.

In some instances, an organization's response to a crisis can actually build customer loyalty and restore faith. We've seen JetBlue bounce back from crises before and I am sure it will again.

Sandra Fathi is president of Affect. She can be reached at sfathi@affect.com. Follow her on Twitter:@sandrafathi.

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