Management's Misjudgement Gives JetBlue a Black Eye

Passengers Stranded Bruise Carrier's Customer-Service Reputation

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In today's 24/7 media world even the best brands are only ever one horrible misstep away from a PR disaster. Just ask JetBlue.
Last week's debacle that stranded large numbers of passengers was a big blow to JetBlue's carefully cultivated marketing image.
Last week's debacle that stranded large numbers of passengers was a big blow to JetBlue's carefully cultivated marketing image.

Blow to reputation
The low-cost carrier built its brand not on ads, but on a brand experience that's epitomized by its mission statement: "Our promise: to continue to bring humanity back to air travel." But last week many passengers claimed to have suffered distinctly inhumane treatment, delivering a big blow to the reputation of the airline, which was slammed in headlines such as "Jet Black and Blue."

A lapse in judgment during last week's winter storm on the East Coast has damaged a brand that for the most part has been an industry darling. JetBlue left 10 of its planes on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, stranding passengers onboard for six hours or longer -- one flight for nearly 11 hours -- with no food, no adequate restrooms and no explanation for what was going on. The airline canceled half of its 571 flights Feb. 14 and compounded the problem by waiting nearly five hours to notify transit officials and request help in getting the passengers off the planes and back to the terminal.

Heavy media coverage
In the days following, the media was all over the debacle, with stories inescapable on TV news, online (with special attention from the Drudge Report) and in print (The New York Post devoted a spread to the tale).

"They blew it," said Steve Danishek, a Seattle travel-industry analyst. "Now it affects their brand. The cost they would have incurred to unload the planes, while high, they could have written off as goodwill. Now they have no goodwill."

JetBlue CEO David Neeleman admitted as much. "It was a horrible situation," he told CNBC. "It's going to certainly impact us, and it's going to be many millions of dollars that we're going to lose from this."

The 7-year-old airline has been immune from criticism for much of its existence, in part because of its low fares and in part for its service-oriented features that include leather seats and seat-back TVs. In fact, the airline was Advertising Age's Marketer of the Year in 2002.

But the bloom started to come off the rose last year when on-time percentages went down and complaints went up. Now this.

Damage control
The airline did its mea culpa, offering refunds and free future flights. A spokesman said JetBlue will assess the situation to make sure it doesn't happen again. But that might not be enough.

"I can't imagine that this is not going to cost them some bookings," said Dean Headley, a professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Wichita State University in Kansas and co-author of the Airline Quality Review. "JetBlue flies into markets where people have other choices. Anytime you make a big promise on a service base like that and then not deliver, or at least violate that promise rather publicly, the fallout on that is so difficult to completely know. It's difficult from a PR standpoint to even control it."

Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Sierra Madre, Calif., said JetBlue has already built up a good enough reputation to survive the fallout.

"If they do any advertising at all about this, it should be in the form of an advertorial, a CEO letter in publications that are well-read by their consumer base," Mr. Bernstein said. "TV ads have worked before, say for restaurants touched by the E. coli scare, for instance. But I believe editorial copy will be better received than a plain TV ad."

Assessing the fallout
For its part, JetBlue said it has no plans to do any marketing to defuse the situation until it has time to assess the fallout.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Northwest Airlines stranded thousands of passengers during a 1999 storm in Detroit; one flight sat on the tarmac for 11 hours. The airline now has a policy that passengers cannot be stuck on a grounded plane for more than three hours. Northwest rebounded and remains the country's fifth-largest airline.

JetBlue wasn't the only airline to suffer problems last week. MSNBC talk-show host Joe Scarborough sat on a Delta Air Lines flight-41E, a center seat -- for nine hours trying to get from LaGuardia to Florida through Atlanta.

"Hey, listen, stuff happens, and I try to be very zen about the whole episode," Mr. Scarborough said on his show. "But I've yet to get an apology from Delta, and, instead, I'm getting spin from a company that's refusing to take responsibility for one bad decision after another," he said. "I'm waiting for that apology and my own free round-trip tickets, or I may just find me another airline."
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