Dorothy Crenshaw March 29, 2012 | 05:39:59

JetBlue’s Response to Pilot Breakdown: Light On Crisis PR Strategy?

All airlines are prone to rough PR weather, but JetBlue seems to have more than its share. Maybe it’s because during a time of rapidly deteriorating expectations, many of us still expect more of JetBlue. It’s that rare industry bird, the customer-friendly airline. An oxymoron.

So when it goes off-course, that’s news. There was the 2007 Valentine’s Day Massacre in which ice storms forced it to ground flights at the last minute. Hundreds of passengers were stranded, and then-CEO Dave Neeleman’s national apology tour helped repair the reputation damage. In 2011, it faced the PR fallout caused by  flight attendant Stephen Slater’s famous exit. Both were serious incidents, but Slater’s actions, at least, had elements of humor, and the airline’s response was measured.

There’s nothing funny about what happened this week. A JetBlue pilot suffered a mental breakdown and had to be restrained by crew and passengers in mid-flight. Though the plane made a safe unscheduled landing, it was clear that JetBlue’s own captain had posed a security threat to all onboard. He shouted incoherently about “Jesus, September 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists” and banged on the cockpit door demanding entry after a quick-thinking copilot locked him out.

JetBlue’s crisis response succeeded in that it got the mechanics right. Its blog referred to a “medical situation” on the flight and reported the safe landing in Texas (though with few details.) It responded in real time to questions and comments on Facebook and Twitter as the story unfolded, and CEO Dave Barger gave a live exclusive interview to Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” one day later.

But the messaging was a bit off. Immediately after the incident the airline seemed to minimize it. Meanwhile, as the real story of the pilot’s breakdown emerged from passengers, the media accounts grew. “This Is Your Captain Freaking,” blared The New York Post. Web comments piled up. Boldfaced names like @piersmorgan piled on.
JetBlue scrambled to do all the right things for the passengers on the plane, offering refunds, vouchers, and personal outreach to passengers on Tuesday.

And though Barger’s candor and accessibility were admirable, he spent most of his airtime defending the Captain, personally vouching for his record as a “consummate professional,” and praising the crew who helped at 35,000 feet. It’s understandable, and the heroism of the copilot and passengers is a good story (as is JetBlue’s status as the first airline to bulletproof cockpit doors.) But the first rule of crisis management is to accept responsibility and acknowledge the seriousness of the loss or risk.

In defending the pilot so vigorously, rather than stressing how seriously it takes the situation, Barger veered a bit from the crisis playbook. Freakish though the incident was, the airline should take responsibility for the situation and call it for what it was, a grave security threat. It then needs to commit to a full investigation of the incident. It has done all three, but under pressure, and after Barger’s “consummate professional” quote was picked up by media.

Barger might take a lesson from the Neeleman era. After the 2007 crisis, JetBlue pioneered a “Customer Bill of Rights” to ensure that such a massive grounding of flights wouldn’t happen again. It showed real leadership within the industry when it could have hidden behind tough weather and unanticipated events.

The case of the erratic captain has shone a light on mental health standards for all airline pilots and possible gaps in FAA screening measures. Maybe JetBlue should lead once again by pressing for a full review of those measures, on top of its own investigation into the captain’s record and its screening process for stressed employees. Then it can take credit for teamwork, training, and, yes, those reinforced cockpit doors.

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