Air Transport World

Out of the blue: JetBlue learns to change its culture after the February ice storm.(OPERATIONS)(JetBlue Airways Corp.)

THE ICE HAS LONG SINCE MELTED, the late-night comedians have found new targets and the scrutiny from both the 24- hr. news channels and the traveling public has proven to be ephemeral. But the beneficiary of those developments, JetBlue Airways, remains reluctant to let go of the past.

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A tour through the airline's New York City headquarters reveals that February still is very much on its collective mind. It's on the walls as well. Many offices, including those of senior executives, continue to feature a calendar of the fateful month preserved as a sturdy blue poster, with Wednesday the 14th through Monday the 19th highlighted in deep yellow. Underneath, the words of JetBlue Founder and Chairman David Neeleman serve as a blunt reminder: "We messed up. But JetBlue will be a better, stronger company going forward. We will never let this happen again."

The events of the designated days were not unprecedented. Other carriers have suffered through a similar combination of bad luck, bad weather, bad planning and inflexibility. JetBlue, however, was supposed to be different--the highly respected trendsetter that flourished in post-9/11 America with a combination of low fares and attentive service while competitors floundered.

But almost overnight, a company that had been defined by its hip image, cool and quirky culture and onboard amenities became synonymous with corporate impotence and the stories of passengers trapped on aircraft for 8 hr. just meters from the terminal.

The debacle, which lasted through the critical President's Day weekend and now is part of US airline lore, cost JetBlue at least $30 million, featured stranded aircraft (52 for 21 gates at New York JFK that first night) and crew, flailing management and the three-day pull of its entire E-190 fleet, which served 11 destinations.

After service was restored, the carrier went on the offensive, paying for full-page apologies in 16 major newspapers and placing Neeleman front and center for contrite mea culpas. It also issued its "Customer Bill of Rights," an unprecedented promise to provide vouchers worth up to a passenger's full ticket price in the event of an extended delay. …

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