Call it press hysteria as much as you like, but this was the most widely and accurately forecast storm system in years, and through poor planning or execution, JB got all the publicity they didn't need. Now politicians are in on this with the pax being "held hostage" scenario, you can expect some knee-jerk regulations anytime soon.
Can one very bad week for JetBlue Airways wipe out years of industry-leading customer satisfaction ratings?
That was the question hanging over the airline yesterday, as it tried to return its operations to normal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
On Wednesday, nine JetBlue aircraft full of passengers were stranded on the tarmac at the airport for more than six hours each, as a brutal ice storm froze in place the planes and much of the equipment that helps move and de-ice them.
It was one of the worst cases of passengers being stranded on tarmacs in recent years, coming after a similar episode at American Airlines in Austin, Tex., just before the New Year, and one at Northwest Airlines in Detroit in January 1999.
In each case there was very bad weather, but then the airlines compounded the problem by acting too slowly to get passengers off the airplanes. The airlines also, in hindsight, should have canceled more flights than they did.
The JetBlue episode is already adding momentum to an effort among some Democrats in Congress to introduce legislation they are calling a passengers’ bill of rights.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat planning to introduce such a bill, said: “If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely.”
David G. Neeleman, chief executive of JetBlue, said he was personally overseeing the airline’s recovery efforts this week and also acting as chief apologizer. “We love our customers and we’re horrified by this,” Mr. Neeleman said in an interview. “There’s going to be a lot of apologies.”
JetBlue, with a new fleet of planes, began business in 1999 and quickly shot to the top of customer satisfaction surveys conducted by J. D. Power and Associates.
“Head and shoulders above the competition,” said Linda Hirneise, who heads the travel practice at J. D. Power. After this week, she said, “the hope is that passengers have short-term memories. It did not appear JetBlue had a plan.”
Mr. Neeleman said: “Is our good will gone? No, it isn’t. We fly 30 million people a year. Ten thousand were affected by this.”
But he said JetBlue would have to be better prepared to deal with freakish weather in the future.
He watched Southwest Airlines, for instance, cancel flights quickly this week up and down the East Coast, and then more effectively regroup. “They shut it down,” he said. “We should have.”
By going ahead with more flights, JetBlue ended up with planes and crews out of position, stretching out the weather miseries for its passengers. “Day 3: unforgivable,” Mr. Neeleman said.
On Wednesday, JetBlue asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy International Airport, to send buses to some of the stranded planes to get people into the terminal.
Passengers stranded three hours or more were promised a full refund and a free round-trip ticket to anywhere JetBlue flies.
Airlines, of course, are against any legislation that would dictate how they deal with delays and cancellations.
“We will change our operational strategy based on this,” Mr. Neeleman said. “We would prefer to be in control of how we compensate customers we have inconvenienced.”
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry group, said: “I don’t think incidents as isolated as this require mandates on operational standards. You have to leave these decisions to the airlines.”
Very long waits on the tarmac are rare. The Transportation Department said only 36 flights last year pushed back from the gate and then waited to take off for more than five hours.
But about 60,000 flights pushed back and then waited between one and two hours.
What many passengers find most upsetting is not being told ahead of time of the delay and the often incremental nature of the announcements — a few minutes, an hour, a while longer.
Northwest, after its 1999 episode — when a Boeing 757 arrived in Detroit from the Caribbean 22 hours late and then sat on the snowy tarmac for 8 more hours — put a formal recovery plan in place.
It bought rolling stairs for 12 airports so that passengers could be unloaded even if all gates were tied up. It stashed small amounts of emergency snacks on planes and gave pilots discretion to decide when a planeload of people had been sitting too long and should head back to the terminal.
If a departing plane taxis out and waits for three hours, Northwest said it would bring the plane back to the gate.
American had a flight sit on the tarmac in Austin, Tex., for eight hours Dec. 29. Because of bad weather in Texas, 67 other American planes sat on tarmacs for more than three hours that day.
Now, American said, its policy is to make sure that passengers do not sit on the tarmac in their plane for more than four hours.
Mr. Neeleman of JetBlue said operations should be mostly back to normal today.
The carrier canceled 279 of 503 flights Wednesday, 217 of 562 flights Thursday, and said it expected to cancel about 100 of 570 flights yesterday.