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JetBlue and the Crewmember (a.k.a. Employee) Perspective

JetBlue and the Crewmember (a.k.a. Employee) Perspective

When JetBlue was founded, the leadership team held a strong belief that in order to provide great customer service, the company needed to hire great crewmembers (i.e., the company’s term for employees) and create a culture where these crewmembers could thrive. As the Valentine’s Day winter storm approached, there was as much concern for crewmember interests as there was for customer interests. What would crewmembers want JetBlue leadership to do as the storm approached? What would they expect when the storm was raging at full force?

JetBlue started with the intention of creating a company that was a great place to work. To do so, the company spent lots of time researching the things that crewmembers wanted as part of their value proposition – compensation, benefits, work environment, culture, etcetera.

What JetBlue hadn’t thought about as much were questions such as:

  • How will the company engage crewmembers during a crisis?
  • How will the company communicate plans for dealing with a particular disruption and how will crewmembers know what they can do to help?
  • How will the company care for its crewmembers at least as well as it cares for its customers?

During the Valentine’s Day crisis, not having given these items much thought proved to be a great missed opportunity for JetBlue to be better prepared for the major disruption.

To understand the impact of an extended crisis like the one JetBlue suffered over President’s Day weekend, it’s important to know where JetBlue pilots and flight attendants lived when they weren’t working. First, JetBlue crews – how the company referred to both its pilot and flight attendant groups – were assigned to specific bases. These bases were major operational locations for JetBlue where combinations of flight assignments started and ended. For JetBlue pilots and flight attendants, all schedules began and finished at an assigned base. At the time of the Valentine’s Day meltdown, JFK was the company’s largest base and the better part of half of its crews were based there.

What complicates the “base approach” for all airlines – and this is not unique to JetBlue – is that bases are normally located in urban centers where the cost of living can be very high. So, pilots and flight attendants will typically choose to live away from their base, where the cost of living is much lower, and commute to work on airplanes rather than by car or train like more traditional workforces. While this is a great benefit for airline crewmembers, what happens to an airline when crewmembers can’t get from where they live to where they work? If JFK is your company’s largest base of operations and almost everyone who works there flies in for their shift, what happens when all commuting options are taken away for several days? What happens is that the company runs out of crews to operate the airline.

During the Valentine’s Day crisis, JetBlue crews were having a hard time getting to NY, but they were also overloading phone lines at company headquarters expressing their continued interest in coming to NY and helping in any way possible. JetBlue simply didn’t have a good way to engage them as it hadn’t played out the possibility of a winter storm so bad that crews might not be able to get to NY for multiple days. This was frustrating for crewmembers and company leadership.

To further complicate the situation, JetBlue hadn’t invested in the technology to easily recreate crew schedules when faced with such a significant disruption. The airline didn’t have an expeditious way to take the pilots and flight attendants that were available and rebuild crew assignments for flights that were the most important to operate. For that matter, neither did JetBlue have the technology to determine which flights were the most important to operate. Based on some challenging economic times, driven largely by increasing fuel prices the previous two years, JetBlue had elected to delay some investments in technology that would have helped tremendously during a crisis. In essence, the company chose to limit its capacity for resilience – its ability to overcome an operational crisis. These investment decisions would prove critical as the President’s Day events played out.

JetBlue’s customer service crewmembers, both those who worked at airports across the route system and those who worked at the company’s Reservation Center in Salt Lake City, did tend to live in the same area as the places they worked. In fact, as Reservations crewmembers worked out of their own homes, they were essentially always at work—if needed.

For those crewmembers who worked at JFK airport, the thinking was that if customers could get to the airport, then crewmembers ought to be able to as well. The company had not, however, taken into account the need for increasing staffing levels when the operation started to break down. As it turns out, getting additional crewmembers to JFK became a problem that was never resolved during the three-day period of peak crisis.

JetBlue’s Reservations crewmembers went on overtime about the time the decision was made to try and operate. For the next six days, every ResCrew member was scheduled for as many hours as they could accept. Shifts were long, breaks were short, and customers were angry. It was not a pretty week.

Ultimately, JetBlue learned a great deal about its crewmember stakeholders during the Valentine’s Day crisis. First, JetBlue leaders learned that building a great culture and hiring crewmembers that knew and believed in the vision and mission of JetBlue was a great investment for building resilience. The leadership team was amazed by the number of crewmembers who wanted to do what they could for customers, for each other, and for any stakeholder who needed help.

JetBlue leaders also discovered that by not investing in the ability to deal more effectively with operational disruptions, they had actually limited their crewmembers’ ability to contribute. In so doing, company leadership had not only limited its ability to recover quickly from operational challenges, but they also sacrificed crewmember trust. Crewmembers felt that leadership had let them down – that they had been assured everything was under control but, in fact, it wasn’t. Employee trust and confidence should not be taken for granted – and there was the appearance that leadership had done just that.

To regain the trust of crewmembers, leaders took to the road. Executives from across the leadership team headed out to all of the JetBlue cities to deliver summaries of what happened, mistakes that had been made, and what would be done to regain their trust. The sessions were all remarkably successful. Crewleaders and crewmembers were able to connect in ways that only common experiences can facilitate – and, in this case, the common experience was the collective pain everyone felt as a result of living the Valentine’s Day Massacre.

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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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