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Jet Blue issues fliers bill of rights

The airline looks to rebound from Valentine’s Day debacle.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published February 20, 2007


Can JetBlue Airways win back the image of a good-guy airline by paying customers when it messes up?

That’s the idea at the heart of a customer Bill of Rights introduced Tuesday by JetBlue. The airline set itself apart from competitors by publicly committing to compensate passengers for specific kinds of flight disruptions. No other airline jumped in with a competitive policy by evening.

The company Bill of Rights comes in the wake of a service meltdown that began Valentine’s Day as bad weather left passengers stuck on planes as long as 10 hours.

Even worse was JetBlue’s failure to bounce back, with more than 1,000 flights canceled and thousands of passengers stranded through President’s Day weekend.

In a video on JetBlue’s Web site, chief executive David Neeleman called the week “the most difficult time in our history.’’ He outlined plans to beef up airport staffing and improve procedures to keep service disruptions from stretching beyond one day.

But if the maverick low-fare airline doesn’t perform, Neeleman said, JetBlue will suffer financial consequences under the new bill.

Departing passengers who experience ground delays of three to four hours will receive a $100 voucher for future travel. Those stuck for more than four hours will get a voucher worth the price of their round-trip ticket.

Customers whose planes land but can’t taxi to the gate within 30 minutes will receive a $25 voucher. The value of vouchers increases by the length of the delay: $100 for one to two hours, the price of a traveler’s one-way trip for two to three hours, and the round-trip price for more than four hours.

If JetBlue cancels a flight within 12 hours of the scheduled departure time, customers can receive a full refund. They also will get a voucher worth their round-trip ticket price if the cancellation is JetBlue’s fault (not caused by weather or air traffic delays).

Other airlines hand out travel vouchers for flight disruptions, typically at the discretion of airport supervisors or reservations center managers.

The airline estimated the weeklong problem cost $30-million, including what it plans to give customers retroactively under the new bill. Neeleman didn’t think the policy would be “a meaningful expense’’ in the future and could attract new travelers.

JetBlue rode a customer-friendly persona to success since launching in 2000. The airline earned rave reviews with brand-new Airbus jets, cheap fares, individual TVs, cheery flight attendants and quirky billboards with messages such as “We Like You, too.’’

That’s largely why the last week’s problems attracted so much attention, says Darryl Jenkins, an airline consultant in northern Virginia. “JetBlue is different,’’ he says. “We expect more.’’

JetBlue had a policy of completing delayed flights instead of  cancelling them. The idea was that passengers would rather get where they’re going late than wait a day. The policy contributed to JetBlue’s poor on-time performance, dead last among major airlines last year.

It also worked against the airline last week at JetBlue’s big terminal at JFK International Airport in New York. Airline officials admitted they waited too long to let passengers off planes, hoping the weather would clear.

Experts had warned that JetBlue was expanding too fast. There were too few reservations agents to handle unhappy customers, Neeleman acknowledged,  and not enough staff to reschedule flight crews during disruptions.

“I always thought this was a disaster waiting to happen,’’ said Jenkins.

Most experts, however, say the airline built a strong enough bond with customers that they’ll give JetBlue another chance.

Aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin remembers watching JetBlue president David Barger get off a flight in Fort Lauderdale in the airline’s first months and position himself at the door.

The plane from New York had to stop en route so a passenger who suffered a diabetic incident could receive help.

Barger apologized to each passenger for the delay, handed out his phone number and told them to call his secretary to book a free flight.

Another airline’s executive watched aghast. “How can we compete with that?’’ he asked. With ideas like a Bill of Rights, JetBlue competitors might be asking the question again.

Information from the Wall Street Journal was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.