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Post Leadership
Posted at 01:50 PM ET, 03/28/2012

JetBlue’s pilot fiasco gives airline another crash course in leadership

Authorities boarded JetBlue flight 191 on Tuesday after an unruly pilot caused the Las Vegas-bound flight to be diverted to Amarillo, Texas. (Roberto Rodriguez - AP)
If you had a bad day yesterday, imagine what it would have been like to be on JetBlue Airways Flight 191 — or a company executive dealing with its aftermath on the ground. One of the airline’s pilots began behaving erratically in the cockpit, and then, after being locked out of the cockpit by the airline’s co-pilot, ran through the cabin yelling about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and al-Qaida. Passengers, a number of whom were on their way to (get this) a security conference in Las Vegas, restrained the pilot as the co-pilot safely landed the plane. The event sounds like something out of a movie. Make that a horror film, if you were on the plane or trying to manage the crisis from the ground.

The airline has been staying in touch with its customers via Twitter and its own blog. And its CEO, David Barger, went on the Today Show Wednesday morning to defend his airline. Passengers on the plane received a refund for the one-way fare, a voucher for twice the value of their original ticket, and letters from the airline, says JetBlue spokesperson Allison Steinberg. Members of JetBlue’s customer care team as well as some of its local leadership team flew to Amarillo, Tex., where the plane was diverted, to meet with passengers on Tuesday.

The airline’s response has gotten mixed reviews from fans and customers alike, with some cheering the passengers’ and crew’s swift actions while others questioned how much the airline was telling them. To some, JetBlue’s initial statements about a “medical situation” didn’t seem to fit the stories trickling out about a pilot running up and down the aisles screaming that passengers should say their prayers.

“Best not to sanitize what sounds like a very serious situation,” one commenter wrote on JetBlue’s blog after the airline called the event a medical situation in a statement. “An on-duty pilot having a psychotic episode in-flight and having to be restrained by passengers per the request of the other pilot is a different category.”

Such a crisis is extremely difficult for any leader to manage in real-time, especially when the event involves what appears to be a mental condition that a company cannot, for obvious reasons, elaborate on publicly. JetBlue’s response was hardly pitch-perfect — the CEO, Barger, seemed to try too hard to redirect his interview with Matt Lauer to the heroism of the passengers and the crew, while the very first thing he said probably should have been his sympathies for the passengers who went through the wrenching experience. And their biggest test is yet to come, as investigations begin taking place and as JetBlue’s leadership takes part in what is sure to be both an internal and external debate over mental health testing for pilots. (Barger called the pilot “a consummate professional” and told Lauer he is not aware of any issues with his record.)

Still, many companies — particularly airlines — would have hesitated to engage so quickly with what their customers were saying about them. That hasn’t stopped the critics, of course, who range from random fliers (“I wouldn’t call what happened today an ‘adventure,’” tweeted @andrewlparker. “I’m from Australia and flying with you in June. #veryconcerned”) to Piers Morgan, who tweeted Tuesday night: “Unbelievable. No #JetBlue executive has called the passenger heroes who saved their plane today to say thanks??? Get on the phone NOW.”

The airline said on Twitter it would “redouble efforts” and a spokesperson says the airline’s leadership team and customer care group has begun individually contacting each passenger.

This is what happens with companies like JetBlue, which tries to set itself apart with a reputation for superior customer service. Leaders who do so have more goodwill than the average corporate leader — comments on the company’s blog, Facebook page and Twitter are a testament to that — but it also means customers and the public expect the company to go above and beyond when a crisis happens.

This is why, of course, the media and the flying public erupted so dramatically when the airline had its ice-storm fiasco back in 2005, and why some are wondering now why JetBlue didn’t say more or call passengers more quickly after Tuesday’s near-miss. When there’s a halo attached to your brand, it’s that much more noticeable when something happens that could knock it askew.

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By  |  01:50 PM ET, 03/28/2012

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