Yesterday, JetBlue Airways, which has spent years burnishing an enviable reputation for customer service and smart-thinking, shot itself in both feet during an icy snowstorm in the Northeast.
You remember the Dec. 29 debacle in Texas, when thunderstorms caused American Airlines to divert 121 flights from Dallas to various airports in the region, and to hold them on the ramps for long periods of time?
Initially, the media reported reported on just ONE American Airlines flight that sat on a ramp for nearly nine hours. (And fellow travel writers, please stop calling it a "tarmac." Tarmac is, like macadam, concrete or asphalt, a road-building material, and not a synonym for ramp or taxiway).
Then after I made some inquiries, it turned out that at least three American flights sat on ramps for over eight hours, at Austin and San Antonio. Now I've learned that another one sat for over eight hours in Tulsa. Who knows how many others were involved, with bewildered passengers stranded on packed planes with only the food they could scrounge from each others' carry-ons, subject to foul air and uncertainty, unable to use on-board toilets because of disgusting conditions.
To their credit, American told me that, while they thought the Dec. 29 problem was extremely isolated and the result of extremely unusual weather, there was no excuse for holding passengers on planes, unable to get to gates, for more than four hours. American said it had re-instituted procedures requiring operations to start paying close attention to planes held for three hours, and to absolutely get them back to a gate by hour four.
(By the way, I am amused at how the current news reports on the JFK incident fail to mention the Dec. 29 incidents -- as if there were not a context to this all. Having long ago replaced curiosity with piety and agitation as driving impulses, much of the media seem to treat every day (or hour) as entirely unconnected to previous days (or hours). But I digress ...)
Underlying these airport incidents are some basic facts. The domestic air-travel network -- handling record numbers of passengers now with 25 percent fewer airline employees and fewer full-size planes than 2000, and dealing with an overburdened, underfunded air-traffic control system to boot -- has no slack. I was not the only one who predicted that what happened in Texas on Dec. 29 would happen again soon elsewhere.
And so we had a more widespread repeat yesterday. While the local media were dispatching reporters out to cover stories about snow and fender-benders, the regional air-traffic system was collapsing. By 6 p.m. yesterday, I counted more than 1,500 flight cancellations -- not delays, but outright, this-plane-ain't-moving cancellations -- at airports in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and -- thanks to the horrible backups in the Northeast -- Chicago.
JetBlue wasn't the only airline with huge numbers of cancellations. But JetBlue at Kennedy was especially affected. (And attention travel reporters who call the airlines and get inaccurate information on stories like this: Flightstats.com provides accurate, real-time information on every flight at every airport in the country. You could look it up).
Anyway, the point here isn't to rant about a system without any slack, in an industry where customer-service is no longer held as a real value.
It's to remark on the way JetBlue, the airline with perhaps the classiest brand reputation in the country among economy-class travelers, dropped the ball. How many JetBlue employees worked so hard over so many years to build that brand!
Hey JetBlue: You are BASED at Kennedy International Airport! American Airlines at least had the excuse that its overpaid top executives were not actually on the scene at Austin and San Antonio and elsewhere as the planes sat and sat. JetBlue executives could literally look out the window and see that major trouble was brewing. They didn't even need their DirectTV.
Yes, I know JetBlue has now apologized and said there was no excuse for keeping people detained on airplanes for up to 10 hours. The company also said upfront that it would issue refunds and a free roundtrip ticket to those who sat on parked planes for over three hours.
But lemme ask ya: Didn't you learn anything from Dec. 29? Didn't ya hear about it? Why did you strand people out there for up to 10 hours without doing something on the spot about getting them into the terminal? Who was in charge of that?
The Dec. 29 mess motivated a bunch of furious passengers to begin strong lobbying for Congress to pass a Passengers' Bill of Rights. A similar push failed after a similar mess in Detroit in 1999 involving stranded Northwest Airlines flights. That failed, I think, because the proposed legislation started to look like a co-op sales contract after all the various pressure groups put their two cents in, and started demanding that the law address things like seat width and, one might guess, the quality of toilet paper, and perhaps a petition to have Mumia Abu-Jamal released from prison.
As currently drawn up, the Passengers Bill of Rights is deliberately to the point. It would address very specific things: When you have to let passengers off a plane. How you have to make sure there's enough food and potable water (and folks, no one I know thinks that stuff in the lavatory faucets ought to be actually drunk). Emergency procedures for the young, the old and the disabled. Period. The draft is posted at the Web site strandedpassengers.blogspot.com And I sincerely hope they don't keep adding new provisions to it.