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Dov Seidman

Dov Seidman

Posted: December 20, 2007 09:32 PM

Flying Into Trouble, Again


Should JetBlue's industry-leading Customer Bill of Rights be grounded? With the holiday season upon us, I was reminded of what air travel was like last Valentine's Day, when many of us fell out of love with the airline industry. On that cold February morning, a series of severe storms roiled the eastern United States, leaving unwitting airline travelers stranded--many times for hours--in overcrowded airports or stuffy, tarmac-bound planes. A second round of storms followed a few short weeks later, forcing equally severe delays. More than a hundred thousand passengers were reported to have been delayed on USAir alone.

In the wake of that second set of delays, JetBlue, an industry innovator from its inception, took a unique course of action. Instead of trying to downplay the extent of the inconvenience or hide behind legalities, the company accepted responsibility and acknowledged its failures head on.

As JetBlue CEO David Neeleman wrote to customers, "We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry." The video he posted on their website poignantly supported what he said: it shows a CEO who isn't hiding behind his desk but personally involved in, and deeply troubled by, what had happened.

The culmination of the company's response was the creation of the airline industry's first "Customer Bill of Rights ." It provides cash and vouchers to customers in the event of future avoidable delays. The move seemed to have a palliative effect on lawmakers, diffusing any need for new regulations to compel airlines to approach weather-related delays more humanely. Customer outrage subsided, as it does when immediate irritants abate.

But the problems do not go away. The Los Angeles Times recently called this "The worst summer ever for air travelers." Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for and Airline Passenger's Bill of rights was quoted as saying "I'm aghast there isn't more public outcry over this. They're making money hand over fist at the expense of passengers."

And now the winter comes again. No doubt we will face more weather-related problems and I believe the outrage will quickly return.

But despite Ms. Hanni's efforts and the praise that greeted the JetBlue Customer Bill of Rights, I am now more convinced than ever that such a policy may be the wrong approach for the airline industry. Although well-intentioned, it's a step backward, rather than a step ahead. It reflects the old way of doing business, rather than what it takes to win, succeed and endure today.

Why? In the final analysis, business success doesn't come from granting customers certain rights; it's about doing that which is right and building a trusting relationship based on that commitment. The JetBlue Bill of Rights is to be applauded for quantifying its commitment and backing it with customer compensation whenever it fails to measure up. But it doesn't express to its employees and management what is the right thing to do. Instead it lays out a financial equation for violating its customers' rights. Absent is an equally explicit moral equation for informing company decisions and actions.

One of the unintended consequences of a customer bill of rights--or any complex new government regulations designed to achieve the same end--could be to provide a convenient, though inadvertent, rationale for making acceptable what was previously inexcusable. Some airlines will simply tabulate the formula, calculate the cost, and choose to pay the fine rather than spare customers unnecessary delays and hardships. Customer experience--the glue that binds us in an increasingly distrustful world--will be sacrificed on the altar of a company cost-benefit analysis.

What the airline industry needs are not more rules or a bill of rights but a credo that is designed to prevent violations of customers' rights and that sets forth principles for employee decision-making. The question mustn't be, "What does this or that rule say about a delay?" or "What will this cost in flight vouchers and other outlays?" but rather whether an airline should subject its passengers to so great an inconvenience in the first place. Without this credo, the question may end up being "How much will we have to pay," not "What is the right thing to do for our passengers?"

JetBlue, because of its already impressive record in values-based thinking and its commitment to putting its customers first is uniquely able to make this leap. For other airlines with long histories of rules-based approaches though, the evolution will be a more difficult--but still necessary--one.

To recapture the hearts and trust of the flying public, legislators, regulators, and business leaders on all sides need to take a hard look at the budding love affair with passengers' Bills of Rights and decide whether it will truly protect passengers, or like Valentine's Day candy, ultimately be a nice gesture that is more form than substance.