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A Study in Contrasts: AA vs. JetBlue


040908delay_sm"My kids were on that beach too."

Remember that line from the mayor of Amity in the movie "Jaws" while he nervously puffed on a cigarette and visibly tried to figure out how to spin the fact that there had been another fatal shark attack after he forced Chief Brody to keep the beaches open despite an earlier attack?

"I put my kids on these airplanes all the time" was the quote from American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey today as he explained that American would suffer losses due to the cancellation of nearly 2,500 flights over the past week, but the airline could sustain the losses from a business perspective. 

Sounds similar, doesn't it?

And this is after he finally, on Thursday, took full responsibility for failing to meet government inspection standards (not safety standards, as he noted), which have led to this massive cancelling of flights and inconvenience to passengers over the past week.  He apologized to passengers, but only for his failure to meet the government standards.  He did not apologize for how much it screwed up their lives and how much this cost them from a business perspective.  He said the airline was prepared to offer the 140,000 passengers delayed or stranded due to the flight cancellations compensation in the form of refunds, vouchers and compensation to "make amends."  Interestingly, when you check the AA.com site, as I just did, you don't find the apology on the home page.  There is one orange-colored line that reads as follows: ADVISORY: AIRCRAFT INSPECTIONS AFFECT SOME AA TRAVEL.  It links you to the customer service page with information on how to contact American for the compensation the CEO is offering.  It's a process, not an event.  There is no video from the CEO. Just a line, an orange line.

It doesn't seem like enough. And it doesn't seem as personal as the horror stories from affected passengers that have been reported in the news or told to me by friends.  Up until now there has been this whispered community of long-suffering travelers passing the word to each other about what was going on.  One of my friends at my gym said the American Airlines people at the airport were trying to cheer people up by offering them granola bars.  Small compensation for missing an important meeting or a significant personal event.

It's quite different from how JetBlue handled its crisis, due not to a CEO error or new government regulations, but good old Mother Nature in the form of an ice storm last year.  As you may recall (and hopefully didn't experience), the weather situation caused seven JetBlue flights to sit on the tarmac at JFK airport for up to 10.5 hours with no food, water or working toilets.  It was an awful experience for the trapped passengers and it subsequently took the airline six days and the cancellation of 1,000 flights to get back to its normal schedule.  Many, many travelers were affected.

JetBlue's CEO David Neeleman's approach to this -- albeit 10 days after the ice storm had hit -- was to admit he was "humiliated and mortified" by what had occurred.  He was the first major company CEO to use YouTube to issue a public apology.  He swore that it wouldn't happen again and explained what changes he was making to ensure this.  The result was that hundreds of people publicy and explicitly forgave him and JetBlue on the YouTube forum.  As Consumeraffairs.com analyzed the situation later, Neeleman won top grades for the way he managed his airline's crisis. 

A contrite David Neeleman has issued profuse public apologies on network television, on the video-sharing site YouTube, on newspaper pages, and on the JetBlue website.

He's not only offered millions of dollars in compensation but issued a consumer-friendly Passenger Bill of Rights, retroactive to cover the victims of the newest St. Valentine's Day massacre, with vows to enforce it.

He's told employees -- the prime target of customer wrath -- to put on the friendly face JetBlue patrons experienced prior to the Feb. 14 fiasco.

Most importantly, Neeleman has looked and sounded sincere in all his public appearances.

JetBlue has a newer fleet of planes and isn't affected by this current crackdown on government requirements that are plaguing American and several other airlines.  One wonders if Neeleman's declaration to customers about not doing this to them again is another reason the airline isn't involved.

As a long-time Gold member of American's frequent flyer program, I took one look at the situation this week and changed my upcoming American flights through Dallas to Austin scheduled for next Monday -- to JetBlue.  American's website orange line notes that the affected flights are expected to end on April 13 and I'm traveling April 14.  But given the way they are handling this from a communications standpoint -- a ridiculous approach to less is (isn't in this case) more, I don't trust their information.

It wasn't just the TVs that prompted the switch.   Like many consumers, I prefer to do business with organizations whose senior executives actually seem to be accountable to their customers.  And smart crisis communications -- over-communication -- is what is called for in a crisis like this that affected so many customers.

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