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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: How JetBlue has done it


TONY BEST

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: How JetBlue has done it

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AS PRESIDENT OF JetBlue, Robin Hayes, perhaps the only chief executive of a major United States (US) airline who knows the exact field positions in a T20 cricket match, has a ready and healthy explanation for his carrier’s success in Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours.

“For many years, the US airlines were notorious for giving very poor service – high fares but poor service like limited leg room,” Hayes told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY. “We have a different philosophy. Our crew members provide an amazing customer service. We have a very unique culture. Last year, we were in the top ten best places to work and I would say that the number one reason why we have become so successful is the quality of our cabin service.”

Hayes’ accurate explanation was given almost two months before United Airlines, one of the world’s largest carriers, suffered the aftermath of global wrath in the wake of a video that went viral on social media. It depicted the brutal treatment meted out to a passenger by airport employees. Dr David Dao, a physician was seen being dragged along the aisle of a domestic flight as blood streamed down his face. He was taken off a flight after he declined to give up his seat so that United could board some of its employees.

What angered many people; especially in Asia was the initial response of Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, who put the blame for the incident on Dao, claiming he was “disruptive and belligerent”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Munoz was later forced to reverse his original position, apologise publicly to Dao and the travelling public and pledged there wouldn’t be a repeat of the awful mishandling of the situation, adding “no one should be mistreated this way”.

We couldn’t agree more.

A Barbadian airport employee of another major airline was on the physician’s side.

“The United airlines incident didn’t surprise me because it reflects the culture of the US carriers these days,” said the man. “Their attitude to paying customers stinks to high heaven.”

Little wonder that another blogger warned on Twitter passengers may “board as a doctor. Leave as a patient.”

Another blogger expressed doubts that “if a randomly selected passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she had refused to give up her seat, there’s no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody.”

It’s hard to argue against that conclusion.

“These airline employees, especially members of the cabin crews are haughty, unprofessional and lacking in sound customer relations,” said Andrew Gibson, who travels regularly doing his job. “US airlines have little regard for the paying customers who fly in economy.”

That’s not the case with JetBlue, once an unknown carrier in the Caribbean but now the dominant mode of air transportation in and out of Barbados, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the US Virgin Islands and several other countries. When the United debacle became a hot-button issue for about two weeks, JetBlue emerged as the carrier with one of the best track records for service.

That assessment was buttressed by the results of a global survey of airline service conducted by TripAdvisor and published last week. It ranked the world’s 10 best airlines for service and JetBlue came in fourth but none of the big four – American, United, Delta and Southwest – made the list. The survey was based on passenger reviews.

How come this fall from grace and the tumble into disgrace?

Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing The Dark Side Of The Personal Finance Industry, blamed the “growing income divide” in America for the “increasingly disrespectful and reflective” way customers are treated, not simply by airlines but in the society as a whole.

“In 2017 it often seems that the customer is the least important part of the [commercial] transaction unless he or she is paying top dollar,” Olen wrote in an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

Others point an accusing figure at the consolidation of airlines in recent years during the Bush and Obama administrations which controlled the executive branch of the US government for 16 years before Donald Trump took over in January. They approved airline megamergers that reduced competition and gave the greenlight to poor service in exchange for high fares and indifferent treatment by airline employees.

“If a [US] car dealer sold you a car, collected your money and then turned around and sold the same car to someone else, this dealer would be culpable of fraud,” complained Dr Gary Mongiovi, a professor of economics in the Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in New York. “Yet airlines do pretty much the same thing thousands of times a day when they overbook their flights.

“Their excuse of protecting themselves against loss from no-shows and last minute re-scheduling is hardly credible in view of the exorbitant fees they impose on passengers who don’t turn up for a booked flight,” Mongiovi asserted. “If airlines are allowed to penalize customers for missing or re-scheduling a flight, regulators [in the US and elsewhere] should bar the airlines from overbooking.” Fair enough.

Basyl Barrow, a Bajan travel specialist in Brooklyn for about 40 years, routinely complained about the lax regulations and predicted in the early 1980s that travellers would never be able to relive the days when federal airline watchdogs in Washington kept the carriers in line.

Unfortunately, Barrow, who died last week in New York, was proven right.

Hayes, the JetBlue boss who believes Petra Roach, the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. top representative in the US is a marketing genius, one of the best from the Caribbean, hails his partnership with Barbados, calling it a special relationship that has paid dividends to the airline and to the destination.

“Petra is great. No one does a better job for tourism than Petra,” was the way he put it.

JetBlue, which was founded in 2000, now flies 925 daily flights across the US, the Caribbean and elsewhere; carries 38 million customers every year in its fleet of 227 aircraft and provides the most leg room and offers personal TV and Wi-Fi at every seat.

Put these features together “and it would explain why people believe they have a better product in JetBlue,” said Hayes.

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