Has JetBlue changed its stripes?

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Jennifer Devereaux is no longer angry at JetBlue Airways for what happened to her 3-year-old daughter, Summer, on a flight from New York to Boston recently.

She’s not upset that while the aircraft waited on an active taxiway, and her daughter said she had to go potty, a flight attendant insisted both remain seated in accordance with federal law. “She was doing her job,” she says.

Devereaux, a photographer based in a Boston, isn’t mad that Summer sat in a puddle of her own urine as the plane waited to take off. She knows that accidents can happen.

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But she’s still steamed at JetBlue for what happened next. After a brief argument with the attendant, her plane returned to the gate, and a crewmember threatened to remove her from the aircraft, claiming she was a threat to security.

“I’m one of the most compliant people you know,” she says. “I’m not a security threat.”

An off-duty pilot who witnessed the episode intervened before the family could be expelled. But Devereaux, a loyal JetBlue customer for the last decade, remains shaken and hurt.

“This is not the JetBlue I know,” she says.

It is not the JetBlue I know, either.

I’ve followed the rise of this airline, which promises to bring “humanity” back to air travel, with admiration since it launched service in 2000.

Its pro-customer attitude, egalitarian and generous seating and sensible, fee-free airfares, made the New York-based carrier a passenger favorite and a media darling — the almost perfect antidote to the corporate, customer-hostile legacy carriers. Indeed, J.D. Power and Associates has ranked it highest in customer satisfaction among low-cost carriers in North America nine years in a row.

But now, I find myself asking the question raised by Devereaux’s incident: Has JetBlue lost its heart?

This isn’t the same airline it used to be. As JetBlue grew, it began to act like other carriers, adding fees for items that used to be included in your fare, like headsets ($3) and pillows and blankets ($5 to $6).

The seats aren’t all the same either, with “Even More Space Seats” for passengers who have more to spend. The airline recently added a business-class section called “Mint” with fully flat seats on some routes. Some viewed that as a betrayal of JetBlue’s egalitarian values.

Then there were the service dust-ups. At first, JetBlue confronted each one openly, including the 2007 ice storm that disrupted travel for 130,000 passengers and led to a management shakeup, and flight attendant Steven Slater’s implosion (remember the guy who grabbed a beer and deployed an emergency chute?).

But lately, the airline seems to be avoiding the media spotlight.

Instead of an interview, JetBlue sent me a prepared statement about Devereaux. “The crew made a safety and FAA regulation-based decision,” it said. “Our team reached out directly to the customer to offer an apology as well as a donation of $5,000 to the charity of her choice.”

Too bad that wasn’t the only such case. Mohammad Bagabas contacted me about a recent flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun, Mexico, on JetBlue. During a pre-flight safety briefing, he says a flight attendant tried to silence his 3-year-old daughter, Aliyah.

“She ordered me to apologize to her for talking over her while she was doing the safety demonstration,” says Bagabas, who works in the apparel business in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He refused, noting Aliyah was too young to know any better.

An argument ensued. The plane turned around, and the family was escorted off. As he was being shown the door, Bagabas pleaded with the captain to let him stay. “The captain said, ‘You had your chance to apologize. Now you are leaving the plane because you’re not complying.'”

JetBlue would not comment on the case, but in an e-mail to Bagabas, it defended its actions, intended to avoid risking “an escalation while in the air,” it said.

Misbehaving flight attendants or passengers can happen at any airline, of course. But two incidents that crossed my desk within a few hours? Come on.

I asked a dozen top experts on corporate culture if JetBlue’s company DNA remained intact today. A slim majority believed it was still a class act, just bigger and a little more corporate.

So how do you explain these recent incidents? Randy Pennington, author Results Rule! Build a Culture that Blows the Competition Away, says it comes down to numbers. With 13,000 full- and part-time workers, and assuming that 5% are not completely aligned with the company’s values, “that’s 650 opportunities for something to go wrong.”

Some observers say that in small but important ways, JetBlue is a different airline. Bob Faw, an expert on corporate DNA with consulting firm Matchbox Group, says even though he thinks JetBlue has “slipped” from its original values, “it can still regain (them) through diligent effort and thoughtful changes.”

How? “Maybe a little common sense,” suggests Devereaux, like giving a mom who is mopping up her daughter’s pee with her sweater a little room instead of treating her like a criminal.

It could be even simpler than that. Perhaps it’s just a matter of bringing humanity back to air travel.

Has JetBlue lost its heart?

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Valuing values in a company

How to tell if your airline has the right corporate values:

What do you think? Your personal experience may be one of the most reliable DNA tests. “Every time we fly, our experience gives us data about the travel company’s corporate DNA,” says Arup Varma, a professor at Loyola University’s Quinlan School of Business.

What do they do? They say company culture is what people do when they believe no one is watching. “Corporate DNA comes through in the actions where the rubber meets the road,” says Kevin McCarty, president of West Monroe Partners, a management and technology consulting firm.

What about their managers? “Ultimately, leaders need to revisit their mission, vision and values regularly,” says Frank Niles, managing partner of Scholar Executive Group, a boutique executive consulting firm. “Live them, and reward employees who live up to the values.”

84 thoughts on “Has JetBlue changed its stripes?

  1. jetblue is the same as any other airline- customer is always WRONG.

    yes, when you get kicked off you can appeal you case or even write to elliott.org- but the “judges” (the 2-3 flight attendants and the pilots) will find you guilty of “not respecting their authority” which they can call “a security rick.”

    maybe a few flight attendants will have a heart , but if a flight attendant gives 1 warning, you are not dealing with a “kind hearted” one.

    “you child needs to pee?!- NO!- BACK TO YOUR SEAT!”
    “apologize for you toddler’s behavior!”

    kiss their @$$ while you still can or they WILL kick you off.

    1. Some day they will pull that on a person who will go off the deep end and give ’em a REAL security risk.

    2. You can write to me, but a JetBlue representative has made it clear that it will not respond to requests sent through me to investigate a service problem. It doesn’t want to set a precedent. I totally understand that, but something tells me there are other reasons, too.

      1. Gee, you think so, Chris? Like not having the faintest idea what they’re doing as corporate mandates some changes … so it’s nearly impossible to justify bad bahaviour on the part of their crews? Much easier to get Joe and Milly to go away than get you to go away on their behalf!

      2. Chirs, you can still put pressure on Jetblue by publicizing complaints against them. Your forum can have an impact by making an airline respond to irate customer. Most of this blog’s readers are frequent flyers. We may be a demanding and sensitive lot, but our dollars is what enables airlines to stay in business.

    3. The underlying problem is that it’s far too easy to be ejected from a flight because of the vague unease of some rogue employee whose identity is never revealed. FAs and pilots should be required to wear audio recording devices whie on the job (cameras wouldn’t really work in the close confines of an aircraft) so that any encounter would be documented. In the event of an ejection, the initiating employee(s) should have to be publicly identified and exposed to possible criminal and civil action, not to mention Internet ridicule, in case of malice.

      By now, everyone knows the identity of that little girl who was made to sit in her own pee. If the offending FA’s identity was also out there for public shaming, this kind of abuse wouldn’t be happening.

      1. I Would have loved to had one clipped into the middle of my wings. I would have loved to download the behavior of the traveling public on a daily basis to a blog called let’s bring back human decency. That goes for passengers AND employees

  2. It is not helpful that flight attendants use the “security risk” card, they need to be fair and reasonable.
    That said, make sure the kids pee before they get on the plane. If you haven’t figured out how far in advance to give them a drink and make it happen, it is time to learn.

    1. Perhaps. And perhaps a 3 year old on a plane gets nervous and needs a bathroom even if they just went 30 minutes ago (accounting for boarding time) …

      1. The whole travel system would fail if they had to stop a plane each time some three year old had to pee while on the active taxiway. Since the incidence of three year olds that pee in the seat is relatively minor, I would suggest that most people have figured out how to deal with this.

        1. You say “the whole travel system would fail if they had to stop a plane each time” and then “the incidence if three year olds that pee in the seat is relatively minor”, which to me are contradictory. If there are so few incidents then let the kid use the bathroom. Given the other infrequent and much longer delays on the tarmac, this is a no-brainer in my opinion.

          And, do you really want to spend several hours on a plane with the smell of urine? I certainly don’t, and I think you wouldn’t either …

          1. Not contradictory, let me explain:
            Point 1: It would fail if they did stop for three year olds having to pee.
            Point 2: Figure it out. They are not going to start stopping the plane for three year olds that have to pee.
            Point 3: the alternative is that if you can’t figure it out, get a diaper for them or don’t fly. Urine in the seat isn’t the answer.

            It seems that every time there is a story where a parent or child is involved, we are all supposed to bend over backwards and go through any amount of inconvenience, assume the parent is never ever at fault, and that kids can do what they want.

            Fortunately, most parents figure it out, just about all of the three year olds around me are pretty well behaved, and the ones that aren’t, I can still get them to smile.

            I’m probably thought of as an old grouch who doesn’t put up with anything, but actually kids like me and I am pretty good at getting them to behave.

          2. “but actually kids like me” – I doubt anyone likes you. I do not have kids but I still have some sympathy for these parents. Shame on jetblue.

          3. You can’t let them “just use the bathroom” – opens them to FAR more liability should there be a problem during takeoff. They fall off the toilet and mommie’s suing BIG TIME! Hence why all are in seats with belts at time of takeoff.

          4. I was thinking that they could delay takeoff for 5 minutes. Certainly reasonable considering they have turned the plane around in some cases. And to be clear, I’m talking about a small child who is DESPERATE to go …

          5. NO – ATC controls air traffic flow, and once you are in position, there is no stopping for potty breaks.

    2. There’s been an interesting reaction to this story. I’ve heard from numerous JetBlue employees, and most of them say it’s true, the airline has changed — and not for the better.

      The most interesting response came from a JetBlue pilot. He said the company lost its customer-friendly DNA a long time ago, and he cited the story of a flight attendant who was chastised by a supervisor for failing to make her in-flight sales numbers on a recent flight. It was an overnight flight.

      The pilot, who asked not to be named, said he is convinced that JetBlue is going to be sold soon. I wonder how they’re going to get that airline merger past regulators, but it’ll be interesting to watch.

      1. I’ve never had anything to do with JetBlue and likely never will However, all of the airlines seem to be competing to be the most annoying.

      2. I wonder who a suitable partner might be. I don’t think that any of the legacy carriers would gain by acquiring JetBlue. Southwest Airlines is still integrating

      3. Chris, Jetblue is unfortunately due for an acquisition. It’s no secret that is the reason its pilots voted to unionize after being industry holdouts for so long. They are hoping the union can provide them with better terms when they become a legacy carriers subsidary. Oh well, the honeymoon was good while it lasted…

          1. A good question. I wish I could find out without violating insider trading laws! It would have to be a legacy carrier (Southwest still has a bit of indigestion from their lat acquisition). In any case, talk of M&A is just that: talk. Looks like it was enought to get pilots to decide they should join ALPA for leverage in case it does happen.

    3. Seems to me that claiming a “security risk” when none really exists, just to make a point, is indistinguishable from sending in a false alarm when there’s no fire. Doing this kind of thing should itself be considered an abuse of the Homeland Security laws.

    4. Here is the original CBS Boston article. Notice there is no mention of security risk.
      I am surprised we cannot even use the correct term here. Worse we argue about it as if it was a FACT.

      The term they used was “non-compliant”.
      Technically the captain was correct since FAA rules require ALL passengers to be seats and with their seatbelt fastened during taxiing and movement on the surface.
      The mother said she stood up during that time to clean her child and her seat, and she was asked to remain seated.

      Added: Of course what they did next was just plain stupid 🙂

      Last Monday, Devereaux says their plane was delayed on the tarmac.
      After about a half-hour, her 3-year-old daughter Summers started crying,
      and told her mom she needed to go to the bathroom. But Devereaux says
      the flight attendant refused.

      “She snapped at me, ‘No sit down,’” Devereaux said.

      Summers was forced urinate in her own seat. As Devereaux got up to
      clean up the mess, she claims the flight attendant yelled at her a
      second time.

      “And I said, ‘please give me a break. My daughter had an accident
      because you wouldn’t let me take her to the bathroom. After I clean it
      up I will sit down.’ She turned around and reported it to the pilot,”
      Jennifer said.

      Eventually the pilot turned the plane around and started to head back
      to the gate. He announced over the loud speaker that there was a
      non-compliant passenger on board, and they were bringing her to
      security. That’s when Devereaux says she got really scared.

      Fortunately, an off-duty pilot who was sitting two seats in front of
      her came to her defense and convinced the crew to let her stay.

      1. Everyone HAS to sit down during this time and be wearing their seatbelts. So called “normal” things that require one to get up are not permitted. The plane can’t just stop and hold up everyone. It may have been unfortunate timing, but what if the kid had to pee while taking off, the mother gets up during takeoff and has her seat belt off.

        I really hate to side with the airline on this one, but you have to sit in the seats, belts on at certain times. If you can’t do that, you can’t fly. It is good that the off duty pilot persuaded them to let her stay, but if the kid has to sit in pee for an extra few minutes, that’s just how it goes. She was wet already, the damage was done.

        1. The kid already peed on her seat since the FA did not allow them to go to the bathroom during taxi. The problem was that mom would not stay seated. Clearly a violation.
          The question is what if they simply ignored her as she cleaned the seat? Then as the airplane hit 10,000 ft, make her more comfortable.

          1. The mother is obviously an experienced traveler and should know not to get up during these times. Entitled parents seem to think that each and every little thing that their kid needs would supercede safety regulations and the time of everyone else.

            What was supposed to happen here? Should the plane have returned to the gate, let the kid pee and then get another slot, having people miss their connections?

            Is there a list of exceptions to the FAA regulations where everyone must be seated with seat belts fastened except where a three year old pees her pants? I think not. Although maybe not a security risk of the mother getting up, it most certainly was a safety risk.

            A life threatening situation such as choking would necessitate the plane turning around. Somebody peeing their pants, as unpleasant as it sounds, is not really a reason. Much ado about nothing here. If you forget to pee and do it while the plane is moving onto the runway, then you have peed your pants and suffer the consequences. Sad but true.

          2. And famous not in a good way. She states “she is one of the most compliant passengers” – to me, that means staying in your seat during takeoff. She obviously wasn’t compliant enough. I’d take an over entitled elite over a self righteous parent any day.

          3. It appears as though this story might have been intended to chastise JetBlue when in fact it appears the crew were doing their jobs and enforcing the rules.

          4. Social media and traditional media are the same. Shoot first and forget the consequences.
            And then we have the cheerleaders who don’t bother to think.
            I bet some of the passengers are not happy they were delayed.

          5. I’m sure that the other passengers weren’t happy at all, you’re right.
            Maybe Mr. Elliott could do a cost analysis of this person’s actions including the costs to the airline for the delays as well as the lost time and implications to all of the passengers and crew. It might well have resulted in some flight crew being “houred out” for their next flight, some people missing connections, additional waiting time for those picking passengers up, extra parking fees for same.

            All in all, a very short sighted and selfish action on her part.

            This might be one of the more expensive peeing incidents in recent memory.

          6. Like the VA telling a veteran they will get a doctor’s appointment within 14 days.

  3. If every “failure to apologize” for unavoidable minor matters is defined as a “security risk,” we end up with the risk of missing true security risks. We cannot have foolish power trips by non-security employees increase until they become the wolf criers so concerned with false discipline that they miss the real security risks. Yes, “rules are rules'” but fools are fools.

    1. What I find crazy is that they label these people as security risks — the real threats will be sitting quietly and following directions. Arguing with the FAs and calling attention to themselves is the last thing a terrorist wants to do.

      1. But if you’re arguing with the FA before the flight has even taken off, how are you going to react if there’s an actual emergency once the flight leaves the gate? It’s entirely possible to not be a terrorist and to still pose a risk to other passengers in the event of an evacuation. I don’t really blame a FA for not waiting to play that guessing game.

  4. Notice what’s common between the two incidents? They both argued with the FAs. So, argue and you’re out.

  5. This past week I witnessed two United FAs (definitely not old CO ones, but Chicago-based-nasties) giggle about “making that old lady sit in her seat and pee herself.”

    This is what we have become as a culture.
    These two women found entertainment value in threatening an elderly woman and then her subsequent embarassment. I fired off an email. I haven’t heard anything back and I don’t expect to.

    1. That is abhorrent beyond belief. I think the old adage about “…a special place in hell ” applies.

    2. Hopefully, United will see this site and realize that behavior like this can came back to bite them…. (Maybe I’m being too hopeful.)

    3. Good luck with that email to United. I stopped flying with them ever since the abuse I endured from them about 15 years ago as a mother with 2 young children traveling alone from LHR to LAX (just an example: I was told there was no early boarding for passengers with young children, so I had to negotiate getting on with a 1 and 3 year old with a car seat, stroller and hand luggage while my baby had diarrhea that had leaked into her clothing). The flight experience was a nightmare, but it was their lack of concern in response to my correspondence to them afterwards that was almost worse. It’s sad to hear that nothing has changed, but I wouldn’t step on a United plane even if you paid me.

    4. I hope you were able to provide the names of the FAs in your e-mail or at least the flight number and date.

      On FT yesterday there was a young AFS-type of person (FlyerORD who has since been suspended) whose posts were full of references to old people and how they would be dead soon so the younger generation would have to worry about them any longer.

      Hopefully, this person and the two FAs will live to be 100 with dementia and incontinence.

    5. I think the culture you mentioned is *beyond* just United.
      It’s really accepted violence in almost all formats you can think of.
      So sad.

  6. For years I have avoided this airline if possible. They have no reciprocal agreements with other carriers. If they cancel a flight you are completely at their mercy. During peak season that could mean waiting five days until they have another seat available.

  7. “Eight out of 10 Americans were expected to drive to their Fourth of July destinations, despite high gas prices. This is likely due to the fact that commercial airlines are widely viewed as flying maximum security prisons.” – an excerpt from Brad Dickson’s column in today’s Omaha World-Herald

    1. If you really think about the hassle of getting to an airport, parking, taking a shuttle to the terminal, checking in with luggage, going through TSA, boarding … deplaning, getting luggage, shuttle to rental car, getting rental car… [insert vacation] … then repeat the above in reverse order; the vacation might not be worth it.
      Just get in the car and drive is better.

      1. Agree, most of my walking trips are taken in a car. But our next big walking trip is to DC, which is 1200 miles away, which is about 4 days’ driving roundtrip. So – on the plane we go. (Still researching that trip, though . . .)

          1. We’ve done that kind of thing before and my husband vetoed it for this trip. It seems that he actually has to report back to work sometime during the month of October. 🙂

        1. That’s 1200 miles each way, right? Too much mileage to put on a car, too much highway driving. Not good.

      1. There are not as many flights on as many routes as there used to be, to make up for few people taking to the air.

        1. What makes you say that? ASMs in 2013 were the third highest in history. Trailing only 2007 and 2008.

          Load factors are the highest in history.

          1. Sorry, I don’t speak TLA. What does ASM stand for? And I didn’t mean, “few people.” I meant fewer people. I remember the time when planes were half empty. When people reacted to 9/11, flights were taken out of service. Then they were added back as people started flying again, but sparingly. It used to be that when a flight was cancelled, they didn’t have to wait days to get another one, even during peak crowds at peak times.

  8. We need to go back to the days when people could board from the curb, could smoke with impunity and have hot meals served to them in flight. In other words, when flying was classy and customer oriented.

    1. Except for the smoking, I agree. The FAs would get antsy if I whipped out a gas mask to be able to breath with someone smoking within ten feet of me. :p

      I remember being a kid and having my family (my whole family, not just one person given a pass to get through security) able to meet me at the gate; being able to see the cockpit if I wanted to; having free drinks, free snacks, and free pillows and blankets; being able to pack a decent sized bag to check and one to carry on without having my parents worry about extra fees… the only thing I wish they hadn’t done was sit me next to my little sister. I wouldn’t have minded being separated from her for the flights.

      1. When we used to visit our daughter in WA, we flew TWA from NY. That way, we could see another daughter when we changed planes in St. Louis. She met us at the gate, we had lunch, and then we’d continue on. Gone with 9/11.

    2. Yes to everything else, but no to the smoking. An airplane is a highly enclosed and mostly unventilated space. I shouldn’t be put in a position of being exposed to cancer-causing substances just because you like to smoke. Back when it was allowed on airplanes, there was no real awareness of the dangers involved.

  9. I just can’t relate to a company’s DNA, just like I can’t support Citizens United. Much as SCOTUS wants us to believe, corporations are not people.

  10. Osama Bid Laden has won !!! (he’s probably still alive by the way).
    All this stupid non-science about security risks.
    Airlines have to employ from the bottom of the barrel as everyone wants cheap. What do you expect ?
    Don’t like it ?
    Charter an aircraft then & pay for it.

  11. Wear rubber pants on your child or a diaper? Airlines have rules and I think some people feel they are “entitled” to break rules.

  12. A few years ago when they upgraded their computer systems, the upgrade happened to occur when a voucher I had was expiring – I would not be able to redeem my voucher for the last two days of the period that I was entitled to. I sent an email to them requesting a 2 days extension for my voucher to compensate. I was told no, I was not given a reason why, just no. While the 2 days may not have made a differenece in my booking a flight, it really left me wondering what happened to the airline I had loved.
    Before that Jetblue was my preferred airline over the other US carriers. Today, I’ll give them a slight edge over the competition, mostly due to the TV (which I don’t watch that much of), unlimited snacks & drinks and the included baggage.

  13. JetBlue is not the same airline they started out as. They no longer value their customers as they once did, their prices are usually much higher than others and I haven’t been on any of their flights that have taken off on time in 2 years. Now with paying extra for “more legroom” and the new Mint seats they have abandoned the core values they started with. No longer do we even see happy flight attendants, most seem grouchy and put upon on flights. On my last flight with them they were even yelling at everyone to hurry and stow their bags and sit down so they coyld pull back, even though the plane got in almost a half hour late and WE had to wait a half hour for rhem to clean and turnover the plane before passengers could begin embarking.

    JetBlue, how about adhering to your own carry on rules about size of carry ons? If you started making people check those bags that are too big to fit in the overhead so the planes can be boarded faster?

    And fix the problems with your online boarding pass printing! They are fully aware that if you have the latest version of Adobe they boarding passes can’t be printed. Luckily it happened to me and I have been able to explain to customers to just print at the airport after you do the online check in. It’s too bad I wasted over three hours trying to print before giving up and then I emailed them only to be told they are aware of the problem. Yet it still isn’t fixed.

  14. I looked up the news article and the plane was delayed on the tarmac. Even if the little girl had gone before boarding (and there might not have been much in her bladder at that point) the plane sat for 30 minutes so it wasn’t like it had been just five minutes. The plane was not moving. Surely the girl would have been done in 2 min and back in her seat before the plane moved an inch. Instead they delayed the flight further by having a lack of compassion and humanity.

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