What JetBlue's CIO Learned About Customer Satisfaction

An interview with JetBlue CIO Charles "Duffy" Mees about what was technology's fault, what were business process problems and what was unavoidable in the Valentine's Day ice storm debacle.

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CIO: When it comes down to it, do you think the problems in February revealed more about weaknesses with JetBlue’s business processes or the weaknesses of its computer systems?

MEES: I believe it was very much process-oriented because there are airlines bigger than us that use the same systems that we use.

CIO: Does IT have any control over business process change?

MEES: Actually, we have a lot of impact on business processes. We are always working with the business to identify opportunities for improvement through the appropriate use of technology to improve a business process. That was one of the reasons for bringing Sabre in to help us figure out whether there was an opportunity to improve the functionality of the CrewTrac system itself or the way we’re utilizing their tools.

We’ve also developed a couple of systems that allow us to positively identify the location of crew members that we didn’t have before. At airports, we have a crew lounge where employees get ready for their flight. And we have built a Web-based application that allows us to send out a broadcast message to all their cell phones or pagers and ask them to check in. Or they can go to a web site, whether from their home or in the crew lounge and say, “I’m so-and-so. I’m available. I’m here right now,” so that the crew services can kind of true up on their physical location. It also allows people to volunteer that may not have been scheduled for work, but are available.

CIO: You mentioned that at one point on the 14th things had gotten so backed up that JetBlue could not move planes to or from the gates. That didn’t seem to be as much of a problem for other airlines. Is something wrong with the business process there? How can IT help solve that?

MEES: The gates are really not an IT issue at all. We have enough gates to process all of our flights during normal weather. We cancelled so many departures out of JFK but we couldn’t cancel the inbound flights that were already in the air. So we had airplanes on all gates and we had a whole round of flights coming in that need those same gates. And then because the weather was so bad, there were actually instances where some aircraft tires froze to the ground and they had to go out and de-ice the tires so they could go get to a parking spot.

Dealing with that requires policy and process changes to deal with size of airline we are now. What do we do? Do we stay hard line about getting passenger where they’re going at all costs? There’s been a lot of internal debate about that. The CEO doesn’t believe we need to cancel flights. There are others, like me, that dispute that. I’m not shy about it. I voice my concern and I believe that it’s heard.

CIO: There have been two significant snowstorms since the ice storm. On February 26, JetBlue cancelled more than 60 flights and on Mar. 16, you cancelled 400 of your 550 flights. In both cases, the majority of the flights were cancelled the night before so you could notify customers in advance. Is that a sign that your CEO has softened his no cancellation stance?

MEES: Yes. The big difference between Valentine’s Day weekend and the subsequent storms was that we cancelled more flights in advance rather than just trying to push through and complete every flight. Everything ran very smoothly and our performance was much better. We realized that it doesn’t benefit the passenger to try to complete every flight. We’re much more selective about what we cancel and what we execute.

CIO: Another changed you’ve rolled out is your passenger bill of rights. Is IT involved in that?

MEES: We’re working on developing automation around that so we can provide bill of rights information to passengers on the Web so they can see if there flight qualifies for compensation and what compensation is to be expected.

CIO: When David Neeleman first launched JetBlue, there was the sense that this was an airline that would use highly automated systems to keep prices low and service high for customers. But this incident seems to suggest that processes were not as automated as they might have been.

MEES: We have quite a bit of automation. But I believe there are more opportunities for it, a lot more opportunities for it. And it’s a matter of utilizing technology appropriately.

I think the focus might have been on the wrong areas at some times. We had three major projects going on simultaneously that I think consumed most of the IT resources for the last couple years. One was an SAP implementation. The other was an upgraded reservation system that we weren’t ready for. I killed that project and pushed it off a year. And then the other one was the new crew tracking system, which we do need, but it’s still a year away. We were doing three of those simultaneously. I think that we would have been better served focusing on more operational, quick hit projects than the real long-term projects.

It’s a fine line that you’ve got to walk. I think that because of my understanding of the airline industry, I would have made different decisions than some of the decisions that were made (by my predecessor). It’s not that there was any waste. It’s just the prioritization was different than I would have done.

CIO: Is there some truth to the notion that this operational and customer service breakdown happened because JetBlue just got too big?

MEES: Like any company that is growing and maturing, there are milestones that you reach and certain events that may change you for the better. And I think this is one of those events where it’s brought renewed focus on some areas that needed some renewed focus and attention to. I think one of the reasons that (CEO) Dave (Neeleman) brought me onboard was my airline experience, to help with the airline technology and take it to the next level so that as JetBlue grows it is positioned to leverage the successes that they’ve had in the past.

I think that there’s tremendous opportunity here. That was the main reason for coming here. It’s a great company. It has a great culture. We need to adapt certain systems to be able to be compatible with the size that we are today and the size that we’re going to be five years from now. But it’s not something that I think is insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s actually pretty easy to accomplish. It’s one of those events in our history where we said, “Okay, we now have a crystal clear picture of what we need to do. We’ve got to go focus on those things and get ready for the next round of growth.”

CIO: Where does the February ice storm fall on the spectrum of your experience in airline IT?

MEES: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s the worst that I’ve dealt with. I was in the airline industry on September 11th, which was bad, but that was a different kind of situation.

You know, what I’ve learned in my career is that you’ve just got to be expecting change all the time, and you have to adapt quickly to the environment. That is one of the biggest truths in the airline industry is that things change constantly. You’ve just got to be ready for it. You’ve got to be willing to do just about anything, any time. You know, being surrounded by 100 people wanting their bags is not a normal IT function, but...

CIO: And seeing your boss make the rounds on CNN and Good Morning America and every other media outlet is not exactly status quo either. He even made an appearance on David Letterman. Did you catch that?

MEES: No, I was working. I got one hour of sleep each night, for about five days straight. It was pretty painful.

CIO: Did you learn anything about your abilities on one hour of sleep versus eight hours?

MEES: Yeah, that I don’t like testing that very often.

CIO: How about customer satisfaction? Did the experience teach you anything?

MEES: You know, I don’t know that I learned how to make the passenger more satisfied, because I believe that I already knew that just from the years of experience. I believe what I probably learned was the urgency with which I need to focus my efforts on providing those systems to my customer-facing business units to make sure that we can provide a better experience for the customer. Making sure that the whole process for the customer is faster and easier, ‘cause it’s not always fast and easy. And making sure that we give them all the information about their flight that we can, and so that all crew members are saying the same thing because they’re all working from the same piece of information.

CIO: Before you took on your current role, you were the CTO in a peer level position with the CIO, both reporting to the CEO. Has JetBlue hired another CTO?

MEES: No it’s all me.

CIO: So you got a big pay raise?

MEES: No. That’s the thing about the airline industry. They don’t necessarily pay like a lot of other industries do. But they’re a lot of fun. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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