Turbulence at 10: Has JetBlue Become Just Another Airline?

Slater Episode Raises Questions About Brand Promise to Put Humanity Back in Flying

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Credit: AP

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A week after rogue flight attendant Steven Slater quit his job at JetBlue by cursing out a passenger and exiting the plane in the most dramatic fashion possible, he has become a folk hero, while the airline has so far managed to escape the public's wrath.

"While we can't discuss the details of what is an ongoing investigation," the airline wrote on its blog last Wednesday, "plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter. Like, the entire internet."

This sort of thing was never supposed to happen on JetBlue. When the airline launched 10 years ago from its hub at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, it promised "to bring humanity back to air travel." Founder David Neeleman recruited flight attendants from every industry except other airlines -- Slater's meltdown after a 20-year career would have embarrassed him.

JetBlue also appealed to a better class of passenger. A Delta Air Lines flight attendant once accused Mr. Neeleman of "stealing all the nice" ones. Upper East Side society types treated its flights to West Palm Beach as a flying jitney. But it's hard to square that early, glamorous image with the (still-unknown) passenger who reportedly disobeyed Slater's instructions, hit him in the head with her suitcase and then unleashed a stream of invectives. (Although several passengers insist Slater instigated it.)

JetBlue promised to be better than that. Its employees believed they were special -- "all that Kumbayah stuff," as Mr. Neeleman once called it. JetBlue wasn't just a name; it was a brand. Is that still true, or is the Steven Slater incident a sign of dry rot? Has JetBlue become just another airline, as deserving of its passengers' contempt as the others?

"It's 10 years old, and the bloom is at least partially off the rose," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst for Forrester Research. "Like any business that ages, JetBlue has to figure out what it wants to be."

Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer of brand-experience agency Method, is more succinct: "JetBlue was different once, but not anymore."

Brand's bold beginning
JetBlue was special when it started service in February 2000. Rather than scraping together a few leased aircraft and flying to wherever the competition wasn't, JetBlue raised more money than any airline in history at the time ($128 million), and it used it to buy new planes with leather seats and DirecTV in every seatback. (Unbelievably, this still isn't standard on most airlines.) JetBlue was a low-fare carrier, but with a twist -- it didn't serve meals, but you could have as many bags of Terra Blues potato chips as you liked. It inspired not one, but multiple copycats -- Delta's Song, United's Ted, and more recently, Virgin America.

More important to its brand was the company's culture. From the outset, JetBlue's employees were determined not to hate themselves and their customers. In an early brainstorming session, current CEO Dave Barger trashed his competitor's campaigns for their allegedly empty slogans and promises, according to Barbara Peterson's book "Blue Streak."

"It's unbelievable," Mr. Barger rants. "They're saying, 'We know we suck, and we just want to let you know that we know we suck.' ... These promises are so outrageous when they are not even delivering on basic needs," he continued. "That's the travel experience, all right: It's 20 to 30 opportunities to piss you off, from phone call to baggage delivery."

JetBlue promised one-way fares, no Saturday-night stays, no bumps and no passengers left behind. And in the event of a delay, it promised to deliver you to your destination on the same day, no matter what.

It was this impulse that led to the notorious Valentine's Day massacre of 2007, when an ice storm shut down JFK. Desperate to get passengers on a flight to their destination, the airline trapped them on the runway for up to nine hours before finally suffering a total breakdown that led to more than 1,000 cancellations lasting a week. Overnight, JetBlue went from being the most beloved airline in America to one of the most loathed.

Mr. Neeleman spent months apologizing to anyone who would listen -- in a social-media landmark, he even posted an open apology to YouTube -- before his board finally ousted him. (These days, he's replicating his early success in Brazil with his new airline, Azul.)

Passengers were still smarting a year later when the New York office of JWT launched "Happy Jetting," the $15 million integrated campaign including the airline's first national TV commercial, outdoor ads and a microsite -- all devoted to the notion that JetBlue was different. It "jetted," while other airlines merely flew. JetBlue had chosen JWT in 2005 after putting its account up for review; the agency's first effort yielded "Sincerely, JetBlue" -- a campaign focused on passengers telling their personal stories about flying on the airlines. JWT later attracted attention for a campaign tweaking humbled CEOs forced to fly coach, but chose not to defend a review of the $20 million account last November. Mullen was selected as JetBlue's lead agency in May; its first creative effort has yet to appear. But "Happy Jetting" persists.

The onset of the recession, combined with high oil prices, led to an $85 million net loss in 2008. To raise cash, the airline sold a piece of itself to Lufthansa, started charging for checked bags (although the first is free), pillows, food and seats with extra legroom. It worked, financially speaking -- last quarter was its best ever, with net profit up 50% over last year -- but did it lose its soul in the bargain?

"Can JetBlue maintain its promise of bringing humanity back to air travel?" Mr. Harteveldt asked rhetorically. "First, it has to redefine what that promise is. When it launched, it was pace-setting, but compared to Virgin America, it's not. JetBlue hasn't evolved, and it needs to, because this is a wake-up call -- and not just in terms of employee relations."

One school of thought is that JetBlue is destined to be ground down by the realities of the industry, which is in the midst of consolidation as airlines scramble to achieve larger scale -- the hallmark of selling a commodity. What good is a brand if you can't control pricing? "It's really hard to differentiate yourself as an airline," said Helane Becker, an airline industry analyst for Dahlman Rose & Co. "What happens when you're flying 80%-90% full is that it's all you can do to get passengers where they want to go. These days, every airline is a low-cost airline, and every airline is a low-fare airline. Some airlines just have more low-cost seats than others."

The counter-argument is that JetBlue is doing everything it can to keep its soul, even at the expense of profits. "JetBlue has the best coach product of any airline in the world," insisted Hunter Keay, an analyst for Stifel Nicolaus who rates its shares a "hold." "They offer the customer a premium experience, and to a certain extent, they do it at the expense of their shareholders -- offering free DirecTV and leather seats are not cost-effective ancillary benefits. JetBlue does very well on surveys; they do very well with J.D. Power." (In fact, JetBlue was recently awarded its sixth consecutive customer satisfaction award from J.D. Power & Associates as the highest-rated low-cost carrier.)

"What distinguishes JetBlue in the minds of its customers is that it puts them first, and in talking to JetBlue executives, I don't get the sense they're wavering in that," Mr. Harteveldt said. (JetBlue declined comment for this story, as did its lead marketing agency, Mullen.)

"In the end," he added, "JetBlue is a brand, whereas the names of other airlines are just that, names."

So what about Slater?
In the short run, however, there's the question of what to do about Slater. Within 48 hours of the incident, he had achieved the status of a Howard Beale, with 200,000 fans on Facebook and ballads composed about him. He's even received the Tiger Woods treatment from Taiwan's Apple Action News. Whether his legend implodes if allegations that he staged the incident turn out to be true, JetBlue still has a rogue employees on its hands -- and one who is currently beloved.

JetBlue Buzz chart

JetBlue Reputation chart

Source: YouGov BrandIndex
The above charts show JetBlue buzz (top) and reputation (bottom) among adults 18 and over.

According to YouGov, JetBlue took online hits to both reputation and buzz immediately following the incident (see charts).

"What's key for JetBlue right now is how they handle Slater," Method's Mr. Crutchfield said. "And it has to be handled deftly. This is more about the tribulations of flight attendants than just one man, and the stress and strain they face daily is going to come out in the stories. How does JetBlue treat its staff, because here's a staff member who clearly needed assistance. How they handle this will be an indication of whether or not JetBlue is still different. Never waste a crisis."

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