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How JetBlue Lost Me as a Loyal Customer

Originally published June 3, 2013

I used to rave about JetBlue’s service and treatment of passengers and nearly always selected them whenever I traveled whether it was for business or personal. I used to love the snacks, roomier seats and the cheerful attitude displayed by all of its employees.

Unfortunately, when a company brand rises above its competitors to a coveted place on a pedestal, its fall from grace tends to obey the natural laws of gravity. The higher up one is, the harder the fall.

In August of 2012, I boarded a flight at LaGuardia NYC airport headed for Boston. Within 10 minutes of taking my seat, I experienced easily recognizable allergy symptoms. Nearly everyone in my family is allergic to cats, rabbits, hamsters, and gerbils but, surprisingly enough, not dogs. In fact, I adopted two and am not allergic to either of them. With itchy eyes, sneezing and a running nose, I asked the flight attendants if there was a cat on board. A few minutes later I was told a “service cat” was flying in first class.

I mentioned my allergies and asked if the cat could be placed in the lavatory and jokingly said perhaps the pilot would appreciate having a furry co-pilot in the cockpit for an hour? Next thing I knew, a stern woman who, when asked, said her name was Maribel (her name tag was tucked into her shirt so I couldn’t read it) asked me to gather my things and follow her off of the flight. I begged to remain on the flight thinking allergies for this short time frame wouldn’t be too bad, but she insisted I get out of my seat immediately or she would have law enforcement arrest me on the plane and charge me with obstructing a flight.

Adding Insult to Injury

Imagine my humiliation at being pulled off of a 45-minute flight because of a cat allergy! Everyone stared at me, thinking I was a potential terrorist or unsavory fugitive of some sort. While I was leaving the plane, a scantily dressed young woman on standby and in high heels breezed past me and took my seat. “Maribel” said I could take a later flight (three hours later, but insisted JetBlue would NOT guarantee that there wouldn’t be another cat on board. According to her, “JetBlue has the right to accept service animals in the main cabin and that the passenger in first class not only paid for her seat, but also paid a fee to allow her service animal to ride in a pet carrier under her seat.” Lesson learned: A cat in first class has more rights on JetBlue than a human in coach.

I asked “Maribel” at what time would JetBlue know whether another service cat might be booked on the next flight to Boston. She said, “Passengers have the right to book flights up until 30 minutes before departure. We won’t be able to tell you until then.” I then asked what would happen to me if I waited for the next flight and learned only at the last minute that another cat would be on board? She said, “That’s your problem.”

Wow! Not wanting to risk waiting three hours for an unknown outcome, I requested a refund. I was told by Maribel that she put it in the system, but that I would have to call customer service to get documentation because providing me with documentation of a refund credit was not her job.

I managed to secure a flight to Boston on another airline three terminals away. After running with my luggage and making it through security yet again, I managed to board a flight 2 minutes before the doors closed. Panting and perspiring heavily as I took a seat, folks must have thought I ran from a late connecting flight rather than being booted off of a confirmed seat due to cat allergies.

Shocking, right? It gets better. Once at home and decompressed after a night’s sleep, it took me 45 minutes and several phone transfers to convince JetBlue customer service that I did not VOLUNTARILY get off of my flight from NY to Boston! It seems Maribel did not put my request for a refund into the system. After explaining what happened several times, including speaking to a supervisor, my fare was eventually refunded.

Not once during this fiasco did anyone at JetBlue apologize, offer to help me find another flight on a different airline (without a three hour wait and without a pet policy that allows cats in the cabin), nor did anyone offer a hint of empathy for my situation.

Airlines and Shareholders, Are You Listening?

I completely understand that airlines, like most businesses, make decisions based on profit and loss. Charging a first class customer a higher fee plus an additional fee for a pet riding in the same space is highly lucrative—much more so than fees charged for passengers flying coach. Having a policy that allows pet owners to keep their companions or service animals with them in the cabin is definitely good for business on a per-seat profitability basis.

However, according to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, “The total pet population is more than 100 million or about four pets for every 10 people. Allergies to pets with fur or feathers are common, especially among people who have other allergies or asthma. From 15 percent to 30 percent of people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. People with dog allergies may be allergic to all dogs or to only some breeds. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies.”

So, is the market share of pet owners who wish to keep their furry companions in the cabin with them larger than the market share of allergy sufferers? Have airlines statisticians calculated which market segment is more lucrative? I suspect not. In reality, if JetBlue were more strategic and truly customer-centric, they would understand that they needn’t choose between the two markets.

Here’s some valuable advice. Why not address BOTH markets in a way that engenders brand trust and loyalty, inevitably resulting in a positive impact to both the top and bottom line?

Since most airlines now collect mobile phone numbers in order to provide alerts on flight delays due to weather or other circumstances, why not simply send out an alert when a pet is booked to fly in the cabin? Allow customers with confirmed seats to change their flights due to allergies at no additional cost? If a customer determines his or her allergy is not severe enough to warrant a flight change so be it, but give passengers some advance notice and choice. (Note: during booking a flight, ask if the person has any pet allergies and specify dog, cat, rabbit, etc. so that the airline can communicate effectively with the appropriate passengers). This approach is low cost, simple to plan and execute, and ultimately results in high returns.

Not only will pet lovers remain loyal, but so will everyone else.

  • Leslie AmentLeslie Ament

    Leslie Ament, Senior Vice President and Principal Analyst at Hypatia Research Group is a customer intelligence management thought-leader and industry analyst who focuses on the business value of technology in regards to how organizations capture, manage, analyze and apply actionable customer insight to improve customer management techniques, reduce operating expenses and to accelerate corporate growth. Her research and advisory services include: Customer Analytics & Interaction, Advanced Analytics, Business Intelligence and Big Data Analytics, Social Media Intelligence/Text Analytics, CRM, Digital Marketing Automation, Customer Data Management/Data Quality and Governance, Risk & Compliance.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Leslie Ament's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel on Customer Analytics & Insight. Be sure to visit today!

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