Crisis Management

I hope that you were not among the thousands of passengers who were affected by the JetBlue Airways flight cancellations during the past week.  What a fiasco!  The front page story of today's New York Times says that the C.E.O. of Jet Blue Airways – David Neeleman – is “mortified and humiliated” by these events. (Click here for the story)

I wonder what the stranded passengers and frustrated vacationers are feeling?  I'll bet that it is not “mortification and humiliation.”  It is more likely to be “lawsuits and boycotts.”

As I have written in the past, I admire David Neeleman's leadership style – he helps to load planes, picks up trash and aggressively seeks out direct customer feedback.  The current crisis will greatly test his leadership and challenge the management, employees and systems of Jet Blue Airways.

Neeleman has frankly admitted that due to the “low cost” operating structure of his discount airline, they did not have nearly enough resources trained and available to handle the communications required to locate pilots and flight attendants and to get them to the proper  locations.  I addition, because they rely on part-time reservations agents working out of their homes (in Salt Lake City) they did not have enough staff on hand to re-route passengers, refund tickets or answer angry customer calls.  So. it was not just angry customers who were placed on indefinite telephone hold – JetBlue's pilots, flight attendants and ground crews were in the same situation – they could not phone into central operations to report their location and availability!  What a mess!  A complete boondoggle!

There is still another part of the story that I suspect will surface shortly.  Jet Blue gambled and lost – badly – hoping that the storm would pass and that their passengers would not miss their vacations.  And… that JetBlue would also not miss the (much needed) revenue stream that those flights generate.  Canceled flights do not generate cash.

Could a sudden unexpected crisis affect your business?  What would you do?  How would you react?  Is your staff trained in crisis management procedures?  Are you prepared to to answer angry customer calls?  Can you business survive if the revenue (cash) suddenly stops coming in?  What is your plan for getting customers back?  What lessons can you learn from the crisis?  How do you restructure your operations to present a repeat of a total systems melt-down?

Let's watch David Neeleman and JetBlue Airways over the next few days.  Let's see how they handle this crisis.  Let's see what angry and frustrated passengers say.  Let's observe how competitors try to take advantage of a wounded Jet Blue to regain passengers that they lost to the discount airline.

If history is our guide, David Neeleman will have to take quick, decisive actions over the next few days in order to start to regain of his customers and employees.  He should study the case history of Johnson & Johnson's “Tylenol Recall” or Intel's “1994 Pentium Chip miscalculation” problem. 

According to Mark Walton (former CNN correspondent) writing in “Generating Buy-In: Mastering the Language of Leadership,” this is the path to follow:

“The best way out of bad news, crisis, and controversy, is to generate buy-in for a positive future, rather than dwell on the problems of the past.”

Customer do not want excuses or technical analysis of what went wrong.  They want to know that their future travel needs, wants and goals will be met – unequivocally!

Customers really don't care that the C.E.O. – David Neeleman – is “humiliated and mortified” by this system failure.  They just want to be able to get to their business or vacation destination on-time for a cheap fare.  And if JetBlue can not assure them that they can do this… then they will book their trip on another airline that can – or stay home.

This is what the well respected Gordon Bethune, former C.E.O. of Continental Airlines had to say in the concluding remarks of today's NY Times article:

“… little other than low fares would do much to win back customers, but is an airline makes a bad judgment call, 'you better be good at recovery no matter what.”  He called last week's JetBlue meltdown “a byproduct of their past and their growth.'”

Quite an astute observation, Mr. Bethune.

It's one thing to be a great leader when things are running smoothly.  Customers and employees admire a C.E.O. who helps them get the plane out on time by pitching in and loading bags, etc.  But when things go bad… They still expect the leader to be out front pitching in to make sure the planes will fly on time in the future.  But now – in this crisis – the stakes are very high indeed.

Mr. Neeleman – we will be watching you carefully.  I truly hope that you succeed in restoring faith in your innovative airline.  And I hope that you can teach us a lesson in leadership.  Go beyond “humiliation and mortification” – quickly!  Make things right!  Show us how to lead.



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