By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - Over the last couple years, I've become a JetBlue fan. I like the low fares. I like flying in to tiny Long Beach Airport, with its yesteryear feel of short security lines, congestion-free vehicular traffic, one little easy-to-navigate concourse, and boarding and deplaning from a ladder on the tarmac. I like the planes’ comfortable seats and personal TV screens (on my last trip, I divided my time between checking the altitude, airspeed, and location, watching Cesar Millan work miracles with unruly dogs, and salivating over Rachel Ray - I mean her recipes, of course). The only thing I don’t like is blue potato chips.
So I was distressed to see that Blue got a black eye from a knockout ice-storm at JFK here two weeks ago, with planes immobilized for hours on the taxiway and hundreds of flights canceled for days thereafter, even when the weather turned nice and sunny. How on earth could things have gone so wrong, gotten so out of hand?
Five days into the crisis, with the cancellations still mounting, the founder and CEO of JetBlue stepped up to the plate. In an interview with the New York Times, David Neeleman called himself “humiliated and mortified” by the systemic breakdown in service. The ice-storm was not the cause, it was the trigger. Flushed with success and ambition in its eight-year existence, the airline had expanded exponentially, constantly introducing new destinations and rapidly becoming the dominant carrier at JFK, its hub. I watched it grow with every flight I took, and I did wonder whether in its exuberance and popularity it was growing too fast for its own good.
It was. The superstructure was dazzling, but the infrastructure was not keeping up. A few planes stuck on the ice had a ripple effect on the entire system. If planes couldn’t land, they couldn’t take off, and then it didn’t matter if the weather cleared. Pilots and crews were twiddling their thumbs in homes and hotels everywhere, waiting for orders, but JetBlue’s inadequate tracking and operations systems didn’t know where they were.
“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” Neeleman told The Times. “We had an emergency control center full of people who didn’t know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn’t get a hold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’”
Neeleman admitted all this, and in highly personal language, too: “I had flight attendants . . ., I had pilots.” He explained everything to the public frankly and simply, without obfuscation or excuse. He announced that he was taking immediate action to restructure the organization and train corporate managers to move into operations when needed. He also implemented a compensation policy for delayed passengers, long discussed by both airlines and Congress but never acted upon.
“This is going to be a different company because of this,” he declared. “I can flap my lips all I want. Talk is cheap. Watch us.”
Dave Neeleman for President!
Beyond JetBlue’s woes, consider the country’s. In more than an analogical way, we have a JetBlue situation with Iraq, with health care, with Social Security, with the environment, with New Orleans. There is a massive breakdown in communications and management at all levels of the federal government. In each of these challenges, some predictable, others unforeseen, we are stuck on the ground with vast resources of human ingenuity eager to help but unable to get through.
And the problem starts at the top.
Last December, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek: “The history of the American presidency is the story of the character and temperament of the man in the Oval Office coursing through thousands of smaller decisions, often thousands of miles away. If the president is supple and open-minded, those decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and empirical. If he’s stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground your teenager for.”
It remains to be seen if JetBlue can pull out of its tailspin, but the swiftness of Neeleman’s response and his acceptance of personal responsibility give a good indication that it can and will. He seems to be demonstrating the qualities Alter sees in an effective executive: “The temperament of the chief leaches into the performance of functionaries he has never met.”
Imagine if we had a President who would admit to the nation that he was humiliated and mortified by the errors in his administration’s foreign policy and was taking immediate steps to correct them. Imagine a President who hadn’t spent three years parroting “Stay the course” and another year insisting he was “open to suggestions,” while continuing the same failed policies. Imagine a ”decider” who actually made decisions rather than letting events decide for themselves. Imagine a President who offered a plan for restitution and healing to his constituents, his “customers,” whose tax dollars have been sucked down the drain while they’ve sat helpless on the runway.
Every major issue facing this country will be stalled for the next two years. Alter writes: “Bush did not set out to miss the mark, of course, but his inattention to the execution of his grand ideas has had fatal consequences.” Neeleman did not set out to miss the mark either, and he also let the operation of his organization slip out of his control. But unlike Neeleman, who quickly faced the facts, admitted his guilt, and moved vigorously to change, this administration is incapable of such forthrightness. It will persist in its comprehensive inattention, self-justification, and excuse-making until it is finally swept away.
Candidates may want to look to David Neeleman for guidance on what America really needs in a leader.