JetBlue’s Lean Business Model Comes Up Short During Winter Storm

February 20, 2007
JetBlue has long prided itself on its commitment to training and developing employees.

Even last year, when the discount airline carrier announced plans to cut costs in an effort to return to profitability, it continued to increase the budget for its JetBlue University.

But the mid-February blizzard and ice storm that battered the Midwest and East Coast, causing JetBlue’s cancellation of 1,000 flights that stranded thousands of passengers, proved that all the training in the world doesn’t help if a company is operating with a lean workforce, experts say.

The Forest Hills, New York-based airline has long been lauded for its lean operating structure. The company, which has more than 9,000 full-time employees, according to its Web site, directs customers to do most of their transactions online, only dealing with employees when there is an issue.

Because of that model, JetBlue’s employees go through extensive training on problem-solving and conflict management, experts say.

But even the calmest, friendliest JetBlue agents couldn’t fix the issues that the airline suffered last week, says Alan Schweyer, executive director of the Human Capital Institute.

“This was just a snowstorm. It shouldn’t have had as big an effect on JetBlue as it did,” he says, noting that while other airlines canceled and delayed flights, they didn’t come close to being affected as much as JetBlue.

“If having a lean workforce works 95 percent of the time but doesn’t work 5 percent of the time, it’s still a disaster,” he says.

In the days following the debacle, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman made public apologies for the situation, saying he was “humiliated and mortified” by the events that could cost the airline about $30 million.

To make sure a similar situation never occurs again, the airline is increasing the number of employees trained in crew-scheduling duties, which Neeleman was quoted as saying was a key issue during the storm. There just weren’t enough people available to redirect pilots and flight attendants.

The company also said it will double the number of reservationists available during emergency situations and increase training in emergency airport duties. JetBlue also is improving its crew communications system so pilots and flight attendants can communicate online about their location.

Mike Barger, chief learning officer at JetBlue, did not return calls seeking comment.

Last week’s failure doesn’t mean JetBlue should give up entirely on its lean way of doing business, says Doug Lynch, vice dean at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

The company’s focus on training has helped the company get to where it is today, he says. Last year, when one of JetBlue’s flights had to make an emergency landing, employees reacted seamlessly.

If anything, JetBlue might look at cross-training so employees can jump into different roles during a crisis, Lynch says.

“Proper training can go a long way,” he says.

One thing about JetBlue’s culture might change in light of the debacle, Lynch says.

“They have been overly confident,” he says. “That might change.”

Jessica Marquez

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