It was, without question, one of the more spectacular meltdowns in U.S. airline history. On Feb. 14, in the middle of an ice storm, hundreds of JetBlue passengers (as well as those of other airlines) found themselves stranded on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, some for up to 11 hours. They experienced dwindling supplies, loss of air conditioning, overflowing toilets. Adding to their frustration: Many were within sight of their loading gates. "It was so hot. We had no food, we had no water," says Sean Corrinet, 29, of Salem, Mass., who boarded a flight to Cancun with his girlfriend, Bonnie Cheever, 28, at 7:45 a.m. They sat on the runway until 5:30 p.m. that night. "We were hostages."
Once they had deplaned, the chaos continued. Several hundred flights were canceled. "The staff was so rude, you can't believe it," says Johnnie Maschhoff, 63, who spent 58 hours at the airport, waiting to board her flight to Burbank. With travelers sleeping on floors, "it was basically a refugee camp," says Corrinet. It took JetBlue, an airline that had been known for superior customer service, nearly a week to straighten out the mess. CEO David Neeleman admitted he was "humiliated" and "mortified" by his airline's performance and vowed to make changes. But how did it happen in the first place?
Why didn't JetBlue simply unload the passengers?
As the weather worsened—and snow and ice caked on the planes and the runways in New York City—so did the traffic jam. "At one point we had 52 aircraft on the ground, and we only have 21 gates," says company spokeswoman Alison Eshelman. "Some aircraft became frozen to the ground at the gates. We had to move the de-icing equipment to the gates, but that became frozen as well." JetBlue diverted flights from JFK but did not ask the Port Authority for buses to evacuate the planes until 3 p.m., hours into the storm.
Generally, airlines are reluctant to cancel outgoing flights "because of loss of revenue; they don't want passengers buying tickets at another airline," says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton. (JetBlue's Neeleman says the delays cost $30 million.) "But by keeping people captive, you generate such tremendous ill will," Hamilton says. "It's incredibly shortsighted."
How come passengers didn't panic or simply lose it?
Some did. "One woman locked herself in the bathroom for three hours," says Corrinet. There was also at least one fist fight inside the terminal. But in general, passengers helped each other, sharing food and water. A post-9/11 world "may have affected people's general sense of expectation," says Todd Farchione, a psychologist with the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. "We are less bothered by these things. We expect it." The perks on JetBlue's planes, such as extra leg room, also helped. "JetBlue has TV," Farchione says. "It was probably easier for people to distract themselves."
What should you do if you're stranded like this?
Stay cool and don't imagine what's happening is worse than it is. "De-catastrophize the situation," says Farchione. Take deep breaths and avert your focus. Work the crossword puzzle, listen to your iPod, make a friend across the aisle. Mainly, Farchione says, keep reassuring yourself. "You will not be stuck here forever," he says. "Even by saying to yourself that you should stay calm, you can diminish anxiety."
How should JetBlue have handled the situation?
Bringing in food, emptying the toilets and calling the Port Authority earlier certainly would have helped. "It could have been a heroic moment for JetBlue. This could have been a 'Let's show you how it's done' moment,'" says Chekitan Dev, a marketing professor at Cornell University and consultant to the travel and tourism industry. The company was immediately apologetic and offered full refunds and a free ticket to passengers who were trapped more than three hours. On Feb. 20 JetBlue announced a customer bill of rights that compensates passengers delayed by issues the airline can control. They hope the changes are enough to regain customer trust. Vows Neeleman: "It won't happen again."
Is a federal bill of rights needed?
Some fed-up passengers certainly think so. Last December Napa Valley real estate agent Kate Hanni was grounded on an American Airline flight for nine hours in Austin. She's leading the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which is pushing demands such as notifying passengers within 10 minutes of delays or cancelations. She says the JetBlue incident proves it's needed. "The airlines just won't police themselves," Hanni says. "We're saying enough is enough."
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