JetBlue says customer service “embedded in the core” leads to airline profits

t5A few weeks ago, I asked Michelle Hansen, JetBlue’s director of customer support operations, if I could interview her about customer service issues. She later asked Morgan Johnston, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications, to field my questions. Here are their answers.

JetBlue is one of only a few domestic airlines that doesn’t charge for the first checked bag. You’ve also gone easy on other fees. I’m a little confused. I thought passenger had embraced a la carte pricing. Why are you holding back, when you could be making more money?

You can’t put a price on customer loyalty and creating a unique travel experience. That’s what we do here at JetBlue by providing amenities we think of as standard and core to your travel experience. We’ve created a value product where our customers can experience 36 channels of DirecTV, 100 channels of XM Radio, unlimited drinks and [without] paying extra. However, should a customer choose to upgrade their experience, for an additional charge, we offer our Even More Legroom seats, first run movies with JetBlue Features, or specialty beverages.

For the majority of our customers, checking a bag is a normal part of their flying experience and one we feel it’s important to protect. Those customers who do request to check more than the one standard checked bag, we will accommodate with an additional fee. In the end, we believe that offering these free amenities will result in greater dividends than if we were to nickel and dime our customers.

You offer a promotion — I’m not really sure if promotion is the right word — called the JetBlue Promise, that offers a refund for people who lose their jobs. At a time when the airline industry is itself on the brink, why cut your passengers a break? Isn’t this a time to be strictly enforcing your nonrefundability rules?

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We actually believe the Promise Program presented an incentive for our customers to travel and therefore drive revenue. In an economic environment where consumers may have reconsidered their travel plans, offering protection in the event of unforeseen job loss gives people the assurance they just might need to take a trip.

Let me ask you about tarmac delays. There’s a big push in Washington for a turn-around rule after three hours on the tarmac. JetBlue has a Customer Bill of Rights that provides compensation for long delays. Why is a voluntary Bill of Rights more effective than legislation?

We’re proud of our Customer Bill of Rights and the protection it provides our customers in the event of controllable delays. Because of our intimate familiarity with our airports and their traffic patterns, we believe we’re in the best position to understand the limits of the system and take care of our customers. A blanket policy won’t fit the hundreds of different airports across the country and could even lead to more cancelled flights if they’re required to return to the gate instead of waiting a few more minutes for takeoff.

Apart from the Bill of Rights, what customer service policies have you put in place since the Valentine’s Day ice storm of 2007, in which several JetBlue flights were stuck on the ground in New York?

We’ve implemented more online functionality for customers. If there’s a storm and their flight will be impacted by a cancellation, we’ll let them know in advance so we can make alternate arrangements for them. Or they can go online and make the changes themselves. We’ve enhanced our operational policies when it comes to weather and other events that can impact an airline’s operation. This greater awareness also leads to better customer service.

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Can you give me a specific example of how these policies have improved your customer service?

Our Bill of Rights is the best example. And the great thing is that it applies to every customer whether they know it or not. We’ve received very positive feedback from customers who’ve had their travel interrupted for one reason or another but who’ve been able to look at our Bill of Rights to see exactly how we’ll reaccommodate them. Having a published standard is extremely valuable when it comes to taking care of our customers.

One of the things that have always impressed me is how JetBlue does things differently. When you call the company, and talk to one of the representatives who are allowed to work from home, you can really tell you don’t do things like everyone else. And I mean that in a good way. How has your corporate culture influenced customer service, and how has being different made you better than your competitors?

Not only are our representatives taking customers’ phone calls allowed to work from home, they all do. We don’t have a call center. But regarding corporate culture, that’s the specific thing that’s allowed us to be successful. Anyone can start a new airline with leather seats and TVs. They’ve tried and they’ve failed because they haven’t been able to replicate the culture element. It’s the people that make JetBlue unique.

Here’s a question I try to ask of all the airlines: Is it possible to have happy customers and still be profitable? Or does an airline have to choose one over the other?

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We believe it’s definitely possible to have happy customers and still be profitable. Look at this year’s financial results. We’ve been profitable the first two quarters of 2009 and have given guidance that we’ll have a profitable year. Also this year we’ve been recognized by J.D. Power and Associates for highest customer satisfaction for the fifth year in a row. If customer service is embedded in the core of an airline, that can lead to happy customers and profitability.

I recently spent some time at your new T5 at JFK. It was one of the best airport experiences I’ve ever had — and I’m spoiled, since I live in Orlando, which also has a terrific airport. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but the question that comes to mind is this: Why go through all the effort to make air travel seem glamorous and exciting, when the reality is often far from it? Isn’t T5 in a way false advertising?

We want to see air travel become an enjoyable experience again. So if we’ve raised expectations that it should be glamorous and exciting, that’s wonderful! We want to have the people and the product to make that expectation a reality for all our customers, both on the ground as well as in the air. And by the way, T5 is also a very efficient airport terminal, so it’s a success both from an operational standpoint and a customer experience perspective.

(Photo: 24gotham/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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