by Stephanie Overby

What JetBlue’s CIO Learned About Customer Satisfaction

Apr 05, 200720 mins
IT LeadershipRisk Management

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.

Charles “Duffy” Mees began life as a corporate jet pilot, but it wasn’t the right gig for him. “Flying is hours of sheer boredom, highlighted by moments of sheer terror,” says Mees. “It just wasn’t challenging enough for me.” So he stowed his pilot’s license and took up computer science. But he never strayed too far from the friendly skies, joining the IT department at Reno Air and subsequently becoming CIO of Independence Air. IT, it turned out, was more to his liking. “It’s hours of sheer terror with no boredom,” Mees says.

This was never more true than last February 14, Valentine’s Day. Mees had been the CIO of JetBlue Airways for just over three months when an ice storm in the Northeast led to a monumental customer service meltdown for the low-cost carrier famous for its customer service. Hundreds of customers were held hostage on the tarmac for hours on end and thousands more were stranded in airport terminals as JetBlue cancelled more than 1,110 flights over a six-day period. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman estimated the cost of the incident—referred to in the airline industry as “irregular operations”—at around $30 million. JetBlue’s reputation took a horrific beating and Neeleman went on a mea culpa media tour, making sure the message got out that JetBlue planned to make things right for customers and do everything necessary to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.

Mees was at the center of the maelstrom. Recruited by Neeleman to become JetBlue’s CTO in July 2006, Mees took over as CIO four months later when his predecessor, Todd Thompson, left for Starwood Hotels. Mees had barely had a chance to get his feet wet when the storm hit and he found himself dealing with irate customers, manning the ticket counter at JFK International Airport and slinging bags instead of working on JetBlue’s long-term IT strategy.

During the six-day slowdown and its aftermath, Mees learned a lot about how in a world of digital cameras and 24-hour news channels customer dissatisfaction quickly can turn into a national PR nightmare. It reaffirmed his belief that being truthful with customers is essential and that smaller, more rapid IT improvements ultimately provide greater value than big bang projects. And he found out a few things he’d just as soon forget, such as how much a human being can actually accomplish on one hour of sleep.

CIO spoke with Mees to afford him the opportunity to reflect on the Jet Blue experience in relative tranquility.

CIO: You were CIO for just a few months before the February… what do you call it in the airline industry?… operational disruption.

CHARLES “DUFFY” MEES: Yes. The technical term is irregular operation, or IROP for short. This one was a level of magnitude worse than any other one we’d ever encountered. It wasn’t so good.

We operate in a challenging air space environment anyway because of Newark, La Guardia and JFK and the Washington air space is close by. So that whole area from an air traffic control standpoint falls apart quite frequently anyway as a result of the sheer volume of traffic. It was a perfect storm, coming on a holiday where our load factors were completely full. We had an ice storm that impacted the entire East Coast.

Our company philosophy is to try and get the passenger where they’re going, as opposed to cancelling the flight and impacting everybody down line. And we kept trying to complete flights. And we just kept digging a hole deeper and deeper for ourselves. And when we did cancel a flight, there weren’t any available seats to move customers to until several days later.

CIO: Where were you when the trouble started?

MEES: When everything started falling apart, I was at our corporate headquarters in Queens. I immediately went out to the airport along with the 80 or so other IT employees that work at headquarters. And that’s where we spent the next three days, getting by on one to two hours of sleep each day, working in baggage claim, working gates, working the ramps, cleaning airplanes, helping wherever we could. Then there was another three days after that we were working to get bags back to their owners.

CIO: What specifically were you doing?

MEES: I was representing IT in the Command Centers at JFK and headquarters to support the operation and my people. You know, I would go wherever my people needed me. I was out on the ramp throwing bags. I helped out in baggage claim. I worked the ticket counter for a little while, checking passengers in and tagging bags.

CIO: What was that like?

MEES: People came up one at a time and laid into you.

It was pretty amazing actually. There was one time where I had to deliver some very bad news. The evening of the 16th, I had to go out to the ticket counter and tell everybody that was out there—it was probably a couple thousand people in the lobby—that we were going to cease operating for the evening, that only the airplanes at the gate were leaving, and they were full. Several of us worked lines at the ticket counter telling customers that they were going to receive a full refund to their credit card and a voucher for a roundtrip ticket anywhere Jet Blue flew. And (I had to tell them) don’t come back tomorrow, because all those flights are full, as are all the flights on Sunday and probably Monday, too.

Some people weren’t really receptive to that message. I heard some pretty colorful language. But then there were other people that thanked me. They didn’t want us to continually say, “It’s delayed for 30 minutes. It’s delayed for 30 more minutes. It’s delayed for 30 more minutes.” They wanted me to say, “Go home.”

CIO: Irregular operations and customer service nightmares are nothing new in the airline industry. You describe this as an order of magnitude worse than any JetBlue had encountered. Why do you think it attracted such nationwide attention?

MEES: I think it was because of Jet Blue’s image and brand promise. We really did fail our customers during those few days. And it wasn’t taken lightly by anybody here. I mean, I can tell you that there were times in the baggage claim area where I was concerned about the safety of my people, because there were some very irate, very large individuals. It was tough. I mean, you’d be surrounded by 100 people who want to know where their bags were. And you look over and there’s this big huge pile of bags, you know? We clearly had failed them.

I think one of the things that contributed to the focus on JetBlue was the advent of smart phones with cameras in them, the ability to take a picture inside an airplane and email it to a news organization. Because at 5 p.m. on the 14th, I had gotten to my hotel room [Editor’s note: Mees commutes to work from his home in Virginia] and turned on the news and saw pictures from inside our airplanes that had been out at the ramp for a very long time. Customers sent along hundreds of those. The fact that the media was getting fed information real-time during the event from the customer’s perspective contributed to it.

CIO: In the days after JetBlue’s problems, much was written about a largely manual process for connecting available flight crews with planes.

MEES: Crews have duty time limitations (regulated by the FAA). And when we had all these delays, you start having crews that run out of time and they can no longer take a trip. You’re hoping that you’ve got another crew to replace them. But that crew may actually be in another city because their flight was delayed or cancelled. So there’s kind of a chain reaction.

Those are two separate business processes: dispatchers manage the flights themselves and crew schedulers manage crew availability. So as all these delays started cascading, the crew schedulers got overwhelmed and started running into problems getting crews where they needed them. JFK was gridlocked to the point where we couldn’t move airplanes to or from gates. So we couldn’t get new crews in. And the crew schedulers were so consumed with that, they weren’t able to identify crews that were already in the area.

The actual system we use—CrewTrac from Sabre—has potential for improvement. It took a lot of steps for crew schedulers to identify what crews were available and where were they located. We’ve worked with the vendor to improve that already.

We also have a couple of tools from Navitaire’s SkySolver suite. You take the flight schedule or the crew schedule and when things start to fall apart because of weather events or whatever, you run the current schedule through this program and it will optimize a solution for you to tell you how to get out of the jam. We had a couple of issues with those programs during the event and the vendor has identified and fixed those problems so we won’t have them again.

CIO: Sabre works with far bigger airlines than Jet Blue. Were there more robust systems available that JetBlue was not using?

MEES: They have two different levels of products. The product that we have is adequate for the size airline that we are right now. At some future date, we may need to look at replacing it.

CIO: How about the baggage problem?

MEES: The baggage problem was that we didn’t have a baggage tracking system. It was something that was on the books but hadn’t been developed yet. The big airlines track bags every step of the way . . .theoretically. Having said that, you gotta wonder how they ever get lost. But they do have a mechanism for tracking them. And we really didn’t. It had never been a big problem because 80 percent of our flights are point-to-point.

My team threw together, in very short time, a simple system so that when we scanned unclaimed bags, that data was entered into a database and put up on a web page that crew members could use to search for missing bags.

Whereas most systems track all bags, whether they’re lost or not, we’ve actually just taken a very simple approach for now. We’re going to roll this thing out into production so that when the baggage service office picks up unclaimed bags, they’ll scan them in and put them in the holding area. And then when a passenger files a claim at any airport, they can search the database quite easily to find out where it is. It’s managing by exception rather than building a big, elaborate system to track it every step of the way. It was a good first step for us. Now we’re looking at adding more functionality to that. There’s a little bit of scope creep going on.

CIO: Then there was your customer service number, which pretty much shut down during those few days in February.

MEES: You can’t size your 800 inbound infrastructure to handle an event of that magnitude. Nobody can do that. United Airlines doesn’t do that. American Airlines doesn’t do that. No call center environment can afford to scale to that size to handle the irregular event. And since this was the worst that we’d ever encountered, it was a significant problem.

We’re looking at implementing technologies that empower the customer to do more themselves. So they could go on the web site and re-book, with no change fees, without needing the agent. We’re also upgrading our speech recognition system right now and looking at more functionality. It’s fairly limited in what it can do. But you still have the problem with how many inbound lines are you willing to support? So the Web is really where we want to drive everybody.

CIO: Any other new systems you created on the fly in response to the February disaster?

MEES: One of the other issues that we had was our flight information display system, the monitors that you look at to see about your flight. Well, at one point, there wasn’t enough real estate on the monitors to show all the flights. So people were looking and they’re, like, “I can’t see my flight.” Well, it’s because there’s too many of them to fit on the existing displays.

And so, real quick, we wrote an application that ran on Blackberries. And we went out, grabbed a bunch of Blackberries and took them out to the airport and handed them to everybody that worked there so that they could tell the customers information about their flight, because you could scroll through the list and find the customer’s flight and tell them what was going on with it. That’s an opportunity. That’s something that should be out there all the time. I’m pushing hard to try and get that in the hands of the customer service crew members, as well as the ramp agents. You know, having information in their hand is something that we’ve got to expand on. So that’s a lesson learned that I’m pushing hard on, trying to get that adopted so crew members have access to information to help them make decisions better.

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.