Thursday, May 10, 2007

JetBlue's Funny Valentine

I guess the people running JetBlue mean business. It's an eight-year-old company, one of the legendary success stories in aviation, and they threw out the founder today.

Other poorly performing airlines insult and penny-pinch their front-line workers, while bestowing lavish bonuses on their numbskull top executives as service continues to deteriorate. But JetBlue unceremoniously showed the door to founder David Neeleman. The ouster comes as the company struggles to regain customer confidence after a disastrous meltdown starting on Valentine's Day, in which more than 1,200 flights were canceled by bad weather, mostly in New York, and passengers were stranded on parked airplanes for six hours or more.

JetBlue -- which some airline experts think expanded way too aggressively in the last year or so -- hasn't been the same airline ever since.

Ah, nostalgia. The JetBlue Web site still carries Mr. Neeleman's optimistic greetings and "flight log."

Dave Barger, the company's president, was named to take Mr. Neeleman's place as chief executive officer. That's "effective immediately," as a JetBlue statement put it, leaving no room for doubt that Mr. Neeleman was being asked not to let the door hit him in the tail as he left the building.

(Mr. Neeleman henceforth will serve as "non-executive Chairman of the Board," the statement said, describing a position that sounds to me something like "enlisted five-star General.")

Do not, by the way, look upon Mr. Neeleman's new position as "non-executive Chairman" as a token of his colleagues' abiding esteem. Look on it, instead, as an acknowledgment that, with 10.8 million JetBlue shares (6 percent of the outstanding shares) as of Dec. 31, Mr. Neeleman is the top individual stockholder, and number five over all. The other four top shareholders are institutional investors: FMR Corp. (14.8 percent); George Soros et al (9.5 percent); Capital Research & Management (8.7 percent) and Wellington Management (7.7 percent).

It's just bidness, non-executive Chairman Neeleman.

Meltdowns stranding passengers on planes are becoming routine. In about a half-dozen instances since late December, thousands of passengers -- not just on JetBlue but on American, US Airways and others -- were stranded on planes parked on ramps with insufficient food, water and bathroom facilities for up to 10 hours.

American Airlines by far as had the most number of instances, the most recent of which occurred in the Dallas region on April 24.

JetBlue, until Feb. 14 justifiably known for terrific customer service, reacted to the Valentine's Day fiasco by adopting a Customer Bill of Rights that clearly spells out how the airline plans to rectify any future such situations. From what I hear, they mean it, too.

American Airlines, on the other hand, simply plowed ahead with a deeply stupid plan to award its evidently heroic top executives and managers with nearly $200 million in bonuses, while continuing to strand customers. Oh, and royally pissing off their long-suffering pilots and flight attendants.

Meanwhile, air service continues to deteriorate across the board as the peak summer season approaches.

American Airlines, by the way, is far from the worst in terms of delays. In March, according to the U.S. Transportation Department, 78.4 percent of American's domestic flights arrived on time. At the bottom of the list were Northwest (66 percent on time arrivals), JetBlue (63.6 percent) and US Airways (55.5 percent).

If you want detail on delays and other metrics highlighting the deterioration of domestic commercial air service, the Transportation Department's excellent Bureau of Transportation Statistics has plenty. It publishes a comprehensive monthly survey called The Air Travel Consumer Report. (That's a link to the latest one, for March).

But for comprehensive and real-time statistical information on flights, airports and airlines -- including scorecard rankings sliced and diced any way you want them -- I strongly recommend You might have to spend an hour or so fiddling around to really get the hang of it, but I guarantee you'll bookmark it once you do. Registration is free.

Incidentally, you'll sometimes read a recommendation to be sure to check another Web site run by the F.A.A. for real-time information with a national map showing "Airport Status and Delays." Trust me: Forget about it! I recommended it years ago, and wouldn't do so now. When the thing is actually working, it's nearly always hopelessly out of date, or simply dead wrong. Do not trust it. Ever.


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