Flying lessons: JetBlue soars when front lines value brand

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A few weeks back, my sister Lee Ann and I had reason to fly on short notice from New York to Fort Lauderdale. We decided to go JetBlue for a number of reasons, chief among them that I was curious about the startup airline's reputation for delivering a high-quality customer experience.

JetBlue is the Target of the skies-luring consumers in search of cheap chic (Time called it a cross between Southwest Airlines and Virgin Atlantic). When it first took wing two years ago today, JetBlue was the best-capitalized startup airline in U.S. history. Although positioned as a low-cost carrier, it operates a fleet of new planes with well-spaced leather seats (each equipped with a monitor showing live satellite TV). The airline carves out new routes to skirt air traffic jams and boasts of its on-time performance.

The result has been filled seats, profits and industry accolades. The New York-based carrier is best known for its Florida routes, but now serves 18 cities.

Beginning with our arrival at JFK, the airline lived up to its advance billing. The woman who checked us in was infectiously friendly. The plane was clean and modern. We took off on time. I tracked the market on my live TV. Then came the flight attendants.

My sister is a nervous flier who pops a sleeping pill before boarding a plane to sleep through the flight. She had warned me not to talk to her, but didn't warn the off-duty flight attendants directly in front of us. After take-off, they were joined by members of the on-duty crew. Their discussion was boisterous, but what bothered us was the content. They were complaining about their customers.

They complained about our eating habits, our hygiene, our lack of appreciation. One attendant wished for an eject button to rid the plane of its more obnoxious fliers.

By the time we got off the flight, Lee Ann was steamed. When an employee standing outside the door said, "I hope you enjoyed your flight," she replied, curtly, "Actually, we didn't." "You should tell us about it," he said. "I will," she answered. "I plan to send a letter to the president."

"I'm the president," he said. "Tell me about it now." The man was JetBlue President-Chief Operating Officer Dave Barger, recruited by founder-CEO David Neeleman from Continental Airlines. He apologized and promised to follow up. They exchanged business cards. Within days, his office called to say the airline would refund the full cost of her ticket.

True story. And it drives home the lesson that front-line employees and the customer experience are far more crucial to a brand's reputation than paid advertising (see Amazon and Starbucks for details).

When I called Barger, he remembered his encounter with my sister, and said he talked to her because it was clear she had not had a good experience. "We have orientation sessions with our crew members every five weeks in Fort Lauderdale and we spend a lot of time talking about the brand," Barger said. "We try to provide tools to the front-line staff to take the sting out of [a bad] situation. It's amazing how much the customer is just looking for someone who cares."

In this case, the irony is that it was rude front-line employees who almost ruined the brand, but a top executive, leaving his office to stand on the front line, who salvaged it.

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