Boohoo, JetBlue

by Charlie Leocha on February 27, 2006

I hate to jab editorially at an airline that I like overall. In fact, I love JetBlue. But the company is creating a heap of trouble for itself these days. Let this column be a nudge to get JetBlue moving toward resolving the service gaffes that have been all too common recently — at least in my personal experience.

I’m talking about the new Embraer E-190 regional jets purchased for JetBlue’s recently initiated Boston-Washington route. For months I have been hearing the hype about how these new 100-seat aircraft will allow JetBlue to serve smaller airports that are not cost-effective for the Airbus A320 aircraft that make up the rest of JetBlue’s fleet.

Since the start-up of Boston-to-Washington/Dulles service in January, many of my friends have regularly booked flights on JetBlue. The bargains during the inauguration of the service were compelling. Last Friday, when I tried to purchase a ticket, all flights were sold out, so I assume there are plenty of other travelers out there who are enthusiastic about this new service.

But the new service has been plagued by problems and flight delays. The new aircraft have suffered from software and pilot rating issues. And Embraer, the plane’s manufacturer, has been unable to meet the promised production schedule. These problems can’t bode well for the scheduled expansion of JetBlue’s route structure.

Friends of mine have flown two round trips with JetBlue on the E-190s in the last month. They were coming to visit me in Boston. Though they loved the new planes, with their leather seats and big windows, the flights were exasperating. Here is the sorry proof of the pudding:

* Not one flight arrived on time.

* The average delay was 1 hour and 45 minutes. In fact, my friends spent more time sitting on the tarmac or in the terminal than flying in the air.

* Weather caused one of the delays. The others were caused by equipment problems.

* The DirectTV never worked — at least not for my friends. On the first two flights, none of the TV service was operational; on the second round trip, some of the seatback TVs functioned, but not those of my friends. However, the XM Satellite Radio did work.

* On the first flight, passengers were given no compensation; on the second they received a $25 voucher for their troubles; on the last trip passengers received a $50 coupon. One passenger commented, “Soon, JetBlue will be paying us to fly.”

This is a simple case of an over-ambitious rollout of a new aircraft without adequate backup. Prudence may call for a slowdown of the route expansion.

According to an interview published on flightglobal.com in late January, JetBlue became the first carrier to operate the E-190 in November 2005, with the launch of service from Boston to New York/Kennedy airport; at the time, it had three E-190s in its fleet.

JetBlue planned to roll the aircraft out across its network, but late last year it postponed one of its scheduled eight deliveries from December to January. JetBlue’s chief executive David Neeleman admits the carrier has had many issues around the aircraft’s entry into service.

“We have had some operational issues with the aircraft,” Neeleman said at an analysts’ conference in late January, adding that while the airline had expected to experience hiccups in launching the aircraft, some of the difficulty has been “of our own doing.”

Neeleman confirms that the E-190 has had on-time reliability rates “a few percentage points less” than JetBlue’s Airbus A320 aircraft figures. He cites pilot “familiarity issues” with the aircraft, along with the occasional difficulty of finding crew rated for low-visibility operations when they are needed on foggy days. The carrier is awaiting certification of the Rockwell Collins dual liquid-crystal display head-up guidance system for the aircraft, which will help eliminate the problem with low-visibility conditions; that certification is expected within the next three months, or by about mid-May.

I can feel for Neeleman, but these are problems that should have been factored into the route expansion schedule and into the introduction of the new aircraft to the JetBlue fleet.

Meanwhile, I have had occasion to scoot between Boston and Washington on American Eagle, which has a far more pedestrian persona and far less comfortable airplanes. But American Eagle managed to take off and land right on time.

For business people, punctuality is next to godliness. If JetBlue wants their business (and I’m sure they do), they had better stick to their knitting and maintain a proper schedule between airports served by the new E-190s.

Leisure travelers tend not to have such long memories, but even they, after being burned twice, are likely to think twice before booking JetBlue. And they are the ones who really crave the DirectTV. So get that working, too.

If these problems persist, JetBlue will lose some of the consumer confidence it has so carefully nurtured over the past years — a time when JetBlue has seen only a single quarter of financial losses.

Heads up, David, before you find yourself singing the blues.

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