Wed, Feb 21, 2007 - Page 5 News List

JetBlue still struggling to catch up in storm's wake

RECOVERY The disruption of flights had been the result of management systems failing to keep up with growing demand for cheap flights, the airline's founder conceded

AFP , NEW YORK

Almost a week has passed since Valentine's Day snowstorms played havoc with JetBlue Airways' flight schedules, but the US budget carrier is still struggling to get all its aircraft back in the skies.

Since last Wednesday, JetBlue has canceled almost 1,000 flights and left thousands of its customers stranded for hours in airport lounges or even stuck on grounded jets as it has fought to recover from last week's snowstorms.

Industry analysts and the media, however, say the episode has exposed JetBlue's shoestring communications and reservations systems.

The airline's founder and chief executive, David Neeleman, conceded in an interview with the New York Times published on Monday that he was "mortified" by the meltdown in the airline's operations and conceded that JetBlue's management needed to improve.

Neeleman said JetBlue, a mainly domestic carrier which also flies to some Caribbean holiday spots, would pay compensation to its customers in the future if they were left stranded for too long.

The weather drama unfolded last Wednesday when snowstorms across the northeasten US forced airlines to cancel flights, but JetBlue believed it could maintain its schedules through the snow and ice.

As the day progressed and in the days that followed, however, many of the airline's passengers, especially at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, were left waiting for hours in the hope that their flights would eventually take off.

The crisis worsened when nine of JetBlue's aircraft, crammed full of passengers, sat on the tarmac at the airport for between six and eight hours.

"I've never seen such chaos in my life," recalled Sally Levin, 80, who was in New York en route to Pittsburgh from India.

Levin said she stood in lines, and tried a JetBlue telephone help number before being told her flight would depart the following day, but her flight did not depart until 7pm at night the next day.

"It looked like a combination of [Hurricane] Katrina and Baghdad. There were people lying on the floor, adults with children, there was an old, old woman that was sobbing, that couldn't walk and needed to go to the bathroom," Levin recounted.

"In the defense of JetBlue, their staff was extraordinary, their agents tried but they had no information, passengers were getting hysterical," she said.

Levin added that she would not fly with the budget carrier again.

As the week progressed, JetBlue struggled to get its planes off the ground. Over this past weekend and into Monday, the airline canceled close to a quarter of its flights connecting some 11 US cities.

Neeleman said JetBlue, founded in 1999, was a victim of its own success, as its management systems had failed to keep up with growing demand for its cheap flights.

"We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren't trained to help," he told the New York Times.

The JetBlue founder said the firm's communication system had been badly hit by the winter storms.

The snow and ice had left many of the airline's 11,000 pilots and flight attendants far from where they needed to be to operate their planes, and JetBlue lacked the trained staff to find them and tell them where to go.

The JetBlue CEO vowed to train 100 employees to deal with such problems if they ever occur again.

Neeleman said other reforms would also be made, including a bid to require some employees to work longer when travel problems hit JetBlue's network.

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