It’s Valentine’s Day 2007. There is a terrible storm plaguing the Northeast with ice and snow. Most airlines have canceled flights. But JetBlue, a newer, innovative, popular airline, is betting the weather would clear up enough for a few flights.
Well, the bet didn’t pay off.
The decision not to cancel flights created the largest fiasco in the young company’s history. Planes were stranded on the tarmac, frozen to the runway. Passengers were not informed about what was going on. Imagine sitting on a plane for 10 hours with the terminal in sight while the air gets hot and the smell from the toilets (which you have been politely asked to use as little as possible) creeps into the cabin. How would you be feeling about JetBlue?
Apparently, not so bad.
Later that same year, JetBlue was ranked ‘Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among Low Cost Carriers in North America’ by J.D. Power and Associates…for the third year in a row.
This success despite the snafu was not just due to the fact that David Neeleman, the company’s founder and CEO, was on every media outlet humbly apologizing. It was also not just due to JetBlue’s full refund and free tickets.
Most of the success was because JetBlue had done the legwork before the tarmac incident to build a relationship with their customers—more leg room, no price gouging or nickel and diming, in-flight television, etc.
JetBlue’s leaders also used the incident as a catalyst to change the way they do business.
“From the board leadership level into the organization, there was no doubt that this was a wake up call,” says David Barger, JetBlue’s current CEO. One of the founders, Barger was COO in February 2007. “We had tremendous growth and, at some point, all companies go through something like this. But if you have the right attitude, amazing things can happen. We created comprehensive fixes. We got to the core of those issues and solved them. We wanted to become a better company as a result of it. I firmly believe that we have done that.”
Since the Valentine’s Day snafu, JetBlue created a Customer Bill of Rights. Among some of the more interesting entries, JetBlue will provide customers experiencing an Onboard Ground Delay with 36 channels of DIRECTV®, food and drink, access to clean restrooms and, as necessary, medical treatment. For customers who experience an Onboard Ground Delay for more than 5 hours, JetBlue will take necessary action so that customers may deplane.
Also, they changed their leadership structure to create more stability and continued to look for more ways to go beyond their customer’s expectations. This sort of sweeping change could only take place in a company that created an environment for entrepreneurial thinking and flexibility. A company that uses the unexpected to its advantage.
So, in the end, the bet paid off. Their biggest screw up was turned into a catalyst for a different way of thinking about how they relate to their customers and allowed them the time to work out what was needed in their company.
Here is something that is not a screw up: their first quarter earnings reflect that the company is continuing to grow…most other airlines can’t say the same thing.
TRY THIS ON:
How can you turn your biggest screw up into your largest asset? How well are you prepared for the unexpected?