Turbulent Skies for JetBlue

JetBlue passengers wait for flights at New York's JFK Airport on Thursday.
JetBlue passengers wait for flights at New York's JFK Airport on Thursday. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Del Quentin Wilber and Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

JetBlue Airways, which made its reputation coddling customers, was so reluctant to inconvenience them last week that it kept putting them on planes while other airlines canceled one flight after another.

That hesitation to cancel during a nasty ice storm Wednesday set off a chain reaction that trapped hundreds of JetBlue passengers on the tarmac for hours, left others waiting in airports without information and enraged thousands of customers. Meanwhile, other airlines' customers at least understood that their flights were canceled and went home or sought other transportation.

"The irony of this situation has not been lost on us," Robert Land, the airline's vice president for government affairs, said yesterday.

The disruption was still being felt over the holiday weekend. Through yesterday, JetBlue had canceled 1,102 flights -- about 32 percent of its total 3,435 scheduled flights since the storm hit, the airline said. Yesterday, 22 of the airline's 48 flights out of Dulles International Airport were canceled.

Now, the airline is reviewing its aggressive no-cancellation policy, Land said.

Michael Miller, an aviation analyst, said he expected the company would begin to act faster on cancellations, as other airlines do.

"Their policy is to try and operate at 100 percent if at all possible," Miller said. "They don't want to cancel unless it's really critical. That philosophy probably needs to be revisited. It worked well up until now, and now it hasn't."

Miller also said that JetBlue's operations had grown too fast for its computer systems to keep up and that "the crew-scheduling software was a major sticking point in getting the operation back to 100 percent. The crew-scheduling software is not as robust as it should be a company growing this fast."

Airlines now, he said, have little room for error in scheduling.

"This shows how delicate their operations are," he said. "Running an airline is like performing brain surgery. You can't slip up."

Analysts were split on whether the delays would cause JetBlue long-term harm.

Miller said passengers have short memories as they seek nonstop flights and low prices. But Darryl Jenkins, another aviation analyst, said passengers do hold grudges.

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