High winds. Freezing temperatures. Thirty-plus inches of snowfall. The Blizzard of 2016 that hit the East Coast last week had it all—with the exception of one thing we’ve grown accustomed to in any instance of icy weather: Angry airline customers.
As Americans hunkered down and took in media coverage of the storm, noticeably absent were the obligatory local TV interviews with families stranded at the gate or the perennial newspaper stories about overwhelmed airline personnel unable to provide timely fixes. There was even a dearth of tweets and Facebooks posts calling out particular airlines for particularly ineffectual service. With more than 13,000 cancellations, shouldn’t there have been more coverage of at least a few travel nightmares?
That question got me thinking back to 2007, when JetBlue was forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights due to inclement weather—causing thousands of customers to be stranded in airports for up to a week. Within the first few hours of the storm, it was obvious that JetBlue was ill-prepared to handle the situation—and the media coverage was brutal.
As anxieties began to rise, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman did something that we hadn’t seen much of to date. As our Richard Levick told Forbes at the time, “Most CEOs run away. Neeleman took control. He’s everywhere apologizing, and he’s doing more than promised. He’s putting the company’s money where its mouth is.”
Mr. Neeleman didn’t try to sugar-coat the situation, exaggerate the circumstances, or point fingers as to whose fault it was. He took responsibility. And he didn’t stop with a stunning level of accountability and transparency about precisely how JetBlue had failed its customers. He took action, instituting a Customer Bill of Rights that put in place notification, compensation, and rebooking policies that made flight cancellations significantly easier for customers to deal with.
JetBlue and other airlines have had their share of cancellations and weather-related snafus in the days since; but to anyone who was paying attention back in 2007, it’s hard not to credit JetBlue’s textbook crisis response with the positive outcomes we see nine years later. In the end, the lack of outrage due to cancellations last week is a prescient reminder that crisis can be the most powerful opportunity for a company—or an entire industry—to change its practices and perception for the better.