the blog

Airline Turbulence

So now it’s the flying high JetBlue that is being brought down to earth. Apparently, on Wednesday, February 14 -– Valentine’s Day no less — passengers on several JetBlue flights were kept waiting on the tarmac at JFK. And as I write this, it’s not yet over. More than 850 flights have been cancelled including hundreds during this President’s Day weekend. I just happen to be in Maine where JetBlue only recently began serving Portland. All JetBlue flights have been cancelled. Check out the gory and scary details in this New York Times article and and this one, too. In New York, JetBlue is everyone’s favorite airline and is likely to be forgiven. Here in Maine, however, where the airline has not had a chance to establish a loyal following, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

We frequent travelers have all been there, trapped on a plane that desperately wants to take off. Food runs out, babies are screaming and young children (and adults) are losing control. Lately, reports from this incident and the other one involving American Airlines in late December have included overflowing lavatories. Yuck!

It happened to me twice. Once on a United Airlines evening flight from New York to Chicago and the other on a return trip from a really wonderful family vacation on America West. In the first case, the pilot communicated with us often and made us laugh a few times. We did finally get to Chicago 5 hours late, in the wee hours, but everyone remained in good humor. No news reports, no lawsuits. In the second instance, it was the usual lack of information from the cockpit. Everyone was given a travel voucher that hangs on my bulletin board to this day. But it didn’t matter to me because after that experience I vowed to avoid America West Airlines like the plague. (The voucher quickly became unusable because AW gobbled up by US Airways shortly thereafter. What a surprise.)

It’s remarkable that airlines are still so lame when it comes to keeping their customers informed. With these latest events, the biggest complaint from passengers has not been about the significant delays, the missed connections, or even the miserable experience of being held hostage on that plane. The biggest complaints have concerned the wretched communication from anyone in authority. Although the airline often knows well in advance that there are going to be delays, it boards passengers anyway. Only the passengers are kept in the dark.

Announcements from the pilot will typically go something like, “Folks, we’re 6th in line for takeoff. Should be lifting off in about 15 minutes.” 45 minutes later, there is a second announcement, “Sorry for the delay folks. Thunderstorms around Dallas are causing some delays around the airspace in Detroit. Air Traffic Control expects those storms to move out of the area very soon. Be back with you as soon as we have more information.” Another hour or more passes. It degenerates from there. 4, 6, even 8 hours sitting in those small, uncomfortable seats and nobody knows anything. The pilot, locked in the cockpit, refuses to keep people posted. Flight attendants are stuck dealing with irate passengers and overloaded facilities, and being paid poorly for the honor, so they let their emotions take over.

But that’s not the final insult. Once the plane is thankfully guided back to the gate to allow passengers to deplane, the indifference or downright rudeness exhibited by the ground personnel completes the package. I know, I know, it’s hard to smile when you’re being yelled at by hundreds of irate passengers. But that’s the job.

This whole state of affairs is a shame because a little communication goes a long way. In circumstances like I have described, passengers are literally hanging on every word the pilot says. It’s a simple thing, really. If you say you’ll lift off in 15 minutes and don’t, let the passengers know right away. This causes people to relax, to calm down. There is actually a physiological effect. And it can be done repeatedly with almost the same benefits. I can’t imagine that pilots like being stranded on the tarmac either. But they’re the leaders, the CEOs of the flight, so their words matter a great deal, much more than the flight attendants, to whom they are also doing a grave disservice by leaving the dirty work of dealing with an angry mob to them.

Airlines are always complaining about how thin their margins are and how expensive everything is. To its credit, JetBlue is not complaining. David Neeleman, the CEO, is talking about being mortified by this turn of events (how refreshing is that?) and about operational changes that are going to cost lots of money. It’ll be a real challenge for the airline to maintain its reputation in the face of this storm without raising its fares and further alienating its customers. Well, guess what? Communication, such as that that described above, is free. If it’s missing, there is no excuse.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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