Winter weather—and its associated travel woes—are nothing new to the Northeast or the Midwest. But the early storm (Hercules) of 2014 saw a nearly unprecedented level of cancellations and chaos days after the actual storm.
Those most impacted were passengers of JetBlue. Several days after the initial storm, JetBlue halted all operations at Boston’s Logan International Airport and all three New York-area airports. According to CNN.com, “JetBlue said it cancelled 435 flights, affecting 49,000 passengers.” The airline blamed both the weather and new FAA rules that extended the hours of rest crews needed between flights.
Not only has this incident exposed some core airline operations issues—not planning for the extension in required rest hours and not having the flexibility to move aircraft—but it has also exposed some holes in JetBlue’s digital customer service.
JetBlue has an easy-to-use and intuitive website. It also has apps for the iPhone and Android. And, according to the blog at Skift.com, a travel intelligence company, JetBlue is one of the more responsive airlines on Twitter. But unfortunately for JetBlue customers, all cancellation roads led to the company’s phone lines. Skift reports that the “Manage my Flight” function on the website was not working; as with most cancellations, the JetBlue app and Twitter direct passengers to call the main 800 number. While the company was answering some of the customer service issues on its Facebook page, passengers reported being on hold—waiting for customer service—for more than three hours.
So despite appearing to have a good digital strategy, it fell apart, along with the airline’s operations. “Digital business models are transparent to all,” said Peter Weill, Senior Research Scientist at MIT Sloan, in an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review earlier this year. “It’s also getting easier to compare services from different companies—using search engines, or sites like TripAdvisor LLC or intermediaries (for example, Expedia Inc. in travel) that incorporate customers’ shared experience via ratings as well as social media.”
The airline ended up scheduling extra flights and is working on how to compensate their passengers. In most weather delay situations, airlines offer little-to-no compensation. JetBlue spokesman Anders Lindstrom told CNN.com, “This is not the JetBlue experience they have come to expect, and we will do everything we can to earn their forgiveness and loyalty.”
Of course, in the aftermath of these thousands of cancelled flights, and ensuing public outcry, JetBlue will likely be looking at its operations and how to avoid such massive cancellations in the future. But it should also look at its digital channels and how they can be better at handling customers and helping solve the problems—not exacerbate them.
Peter Weill is a Senior Research Scientist at MIT Sloan and Chairman of the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR). He teaches in Revitalizing Your Digital Business Model and Essential IT for Non-IT Executives at MIT Sloan Executive Education.