JetBlues Continue: Can They Recover?

Days after a snow and ice forced a breakdown of JetBlue operations, CEO David G. Neeleman says he's "humiliated" by continued flight cancellations. (Photo courtesy
Days after a snow and ice forced a breakdown of JetBlue operations, CEO David G. Neeleman says he's "humiliated" by continued flight cancellations. (Photo courtesy

by Matthew Jaffe, ABC News

A disastrous week for JetBlue culminated with the announcement that the troubled airline had canceled 139 Monday flights.

"JetBlue Airways announces further operational recovery programs," the airline said in a statement released Saturday night, "canceling 23 percent of Monday, Feb. 19 operations."

David Neeleman, JetBlue's founder and chief executive, told The New York Times that he was "humiliated and mortified." Neeleman cited a devastating combination of poor communications and an overwhelmed reservation system that left planes and crews far from their originally scheduled locations.

On Wednesday, JetBlue's breakdown began when a severe winter storm battered the Northeast, triggering a series of events that led to JetBlue leaving planes stranded on New York's Kennedy Airport runway for up to 10 hours.

The airline struggled to get flights back on schedule in the days following the Valentine's Day fiasco; finally, as part of "Operation Recovery," JetBlue decided to cancel all flights to and from a total of 11 destinations: Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Richmond, Raleigh/Durham, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Nashville, Jacksonville, Bermuda and Portland, Maine.

"JetBlue extends the operational recovery program into Monday in order to operate a reliable schedule and to continue its work in positioning aircraft and flight crews properly," the airline said in a statement. "JetBlue is taking this aggressive, unprecedented action to end rolling delays and cancellations, and to operate a new schedule reliably."

The news will not help soothe passenger complaints about an airline industry that is reeling after the JFK problems and an American Airlines incident two months ago. After American Airlines let Flight 1348 passengers sit on an Austin runway for nearly 10 hours, the airline updated its procedures regarding passengers' rights during flight delays.

"American Airlines' senior management has reviewed the regrettable events surrounding Flight 1348 and other flights on that day, and has set into motion plans so that our passengers' needs are taken care of should we ever find ourselves again in such challenging conditions," said spokesman Tim Wagner. "While we recognize that aircraft delays of such long duration are extremely rare, one of our first courses of action was to revise our policy to ensure passengers do not remain on aircraft more than four hours on the ground."

Now it appears to be JetBlue's turn for damage control.

"The bottom line is that it was unacceptable to have left [the planes] there that long," said JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Eshelman in regards to the JFK debacle. "We were operating under the assumption that we could be able to get them to their destinations and get them to their vacations but unfortunately that never happened. We should have done better."

The problems have already prompted JetBlue to reassess its policies.

"It's JetBlue's responsibility from start to finish," said Eshelman. "We're looking at our operational strategy based on this completely unacceptable experience." Few travelers on this busy holiday weekend will be in a forgiving mood upon hearing about the most recent cancellations, but despite a possible backlash of customer dissatisfaction, industry analysts praised JetBlue's bold move.

"I applaud any airline that steps up and says, 'you know what? We can't handle this. Let's shut it down and start it up again," said ABC News consultant, aviation analyst John Nance.

Linda Hirneise, executive director of Global Travel Practice at J.D. Power and Associates, believes that JetBlue will be able to bounce back.

"There may be a recovery," Hirneise said, "but it may take a while."

It is the fitting ending of a disastrous week for one of the nation's most popular budget airlines. After building a reputation for affordable tickets and excellent customer service, JetBlue has seen one week of bad weather and poor decisions tarnish eight years of quality work. Ultimately, though, in this case, cutting its losses may be JetBlue's best move yet.

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Posted by R. Smith, KTRE-TV