The Jet Blue Blues

The lucky JetBlue passengers were the ones whose flights were cancelled last week. They were fortunate enough to remain stranded in well-heated airports with restrooms and food courts. As for the unlucky ones, hundreds of them were trapped for as many as 10 hours in planes on the tarmac, with overflowing toilets, dwindling supplies of drinking water, and of course no food when the pretzels ran out. So far there have been no reports of cannibalism aboard immobilized JetBlue flights, but, with the company’s post-ice storm PR campaign in full swing, who knows?

I could do 10 hours on the tarmac, provided I had a sufficient supply of Xanax and protein bars. But with children? JetBlue’s CEO David Neeleman has nine of them. Would he dare risk a family vacation in the Caribbean if any of them are in the challenging 0 to 10 age range? According to CNN, parents on stranded planes were ripping up t-shirts to make diapers for their babies. And how many times can you read Curious George out loud anyway?

Neeleman has admitted to being “humiliated and mortified” by his company’s post-storm meltdown (one might wish that his status included “fired.”) But JetBlue’s outbreak of passenger abuse reflects larger problems in corporate America. One is a premium on youth at the expense of experience. According to Aero News, this may have had something to do with the company’s decision, shortly after the storm, to push planes off to the tarmac rather than canceling flights, as the older airlines did. JetBlue’s approach certainly succeeded in clearing some boarding areas of noisy, disgruntled passengers, but a stun gun might have been more humane.

“There’s a lot more gray hair at older airlines than there is at JetBlue,” Aero News quoted Tim Sieber, general manager of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm. But youth is part of JetBlue’s branding, even if it means having no one around who’s ever seen snow.

The other widespread problem is a simple shortage of employees. Since the late eighties, corporate America has pursued the beautiful dream of an employee-free company. Imagine: no payroll except for the top executives, no benefits to provide, and of course no unions! So the pattern has been that every time a company downsizes, its stock rises and its top managers drool over their burgeoning portfolios.

Since 9/11, the airlines in particular have been shedding employees like unwanted ballast, with predictable results. As the New York Times reports, there’s been an industry-wide “thinning of staff,” meaning that in bad weather, airlines often “do not have enough people…” Which might be OK if bad weather hadn’t become so routine that it’s crowding out all other news on CNN.

The budget airlines are especially skimpy when it comes to human employees. In late 2006, Neeleman announced plans to reduce its number of full-time employees per plane from 93 to 80. He should rethink that, since the major reason JetBlue couldn’t get back off the ground after the Valentine’s Day storm was that it lacks the personnel to connect crews to their flights. Pilots and flight attendants remained stuck in their hotels while passengers slept on airport floors.

Neeleman might also want to rethink the paltry passengers’ “bill of rights” JetBlue is offering as part of its effort to regain customer trust. What it’s missing is the crucial right to be freed from an airplane that isn’t going anywhere at all. According to a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry’s major trade group, such a right would “impose[s] inflexible standards on a carrier's operations” -- just as laws against kidnapping place a terrible burden on ransom-seekers.

If I get stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, I plan to use my cell phone to call Homeland Security. Let’s face it, JetBlue and the rest of you: Anything more than three hours on the ground isn’t an airline delay, it’s a hostage situation.

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