If JetBlue's reading this, guys, it's time to grok the blogosphere

One PR expert knew how to use the Internet to fight back, and he's not the exception. We're long past the era when companies could screw over their customers without risking public humiliation.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

Updated at 5:20 p.m. with comment from JetBlue

"The filthy, lying, money-grubbing whores we call...the airline industry."


Now that's a headline.

Bill Baker, a technology publicist from Connecticut, was not about to mince words after JetBlue left him stranded by canceling his return flight from Portland, Ore.

"I wrote that when I was especially angry," said Baker, still seething one week later when we spoke. "I'm still pretty postal about it."

Here's the Reader's Digest version of what happened.

On July 23, Baker's red-eye to New York was twice delayed from its original midnight departure time. Then around 5 in the morning, JetBlue told waiting passengers that it had to cancel the flight because there was no crew to fly the plane. That announcement set off the invariable scramble at the service desk, where JetBlue offered either to refund the $229 return leg of Baker's trip--along with a $100 voucher--or put him on the next available flight to New York three days later. To add insult to injury, Baker would have to go out on a midnight flight.

But the story gets worse. While JetBlue said it was not responsible for finding sleeping accommodations, all the hotels Baker called were booked solid. JetBlue also informed Baker it was not going to book him on a different plane because it does not have inter-line agreements with other airlines.

The ending to this novella was pre-ordained: The only way out of town was going to be on Baker's tab--and so he paid $977 to fly back via Detroit on Northwest and Delta.

I was less intrigued by JetBlue's tin ear than by what happened next. We're long past the era when companies could cavalierly screw over their customers without risking public humiliation, and Baker knew what to do next. See, there's this thing called the Internet...

After getting nowhere fast with the customer complaint department on his demand for a full refund--"I got a reply back saying basically, "You're out of luck"--Baker put the entire blow-by-blow on his blog.

Turns out that JetBlue was also interested in what he had to say. Three days after going public, Baker heard back from JetBlue, which had been tracking his blog posts.

JetBlue offered him another $60 plus flight certificates worth $229. But no salted peanuts.

"I was completely up front with them the entire time when I spoke with JetBlue," Baker said. "I told them that I'm going to make some noise about this... I've been in business for 10 years and If I screw up, I tell my client--if I expect to retain their business. I understand that you can't be responsible for the weather, and I understand delays. But I told them it sounds as if (JetBlue) is selling a product that it can't support.

JetBlue still hasn't returned my calls to provide their side of the story (Note: JetBlue did get back to me after I posted this story. Their comment is below). But the incident reminded me of the lengthy hassle BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis encountered a few years ago after he attempted to get Dell to fix his malfunctioning computer. Jarvis was getting nowhere fast with the company's customer service division, so out of frustration he published an open letter to Michael Dell with this devastating opening: "The bottom line is that a low-price coupon may have gotten me to buy a Dell, but your product was a lemon, and your customer service was appalling."

Michael Dell and his minions obviously grok the changing nature of communication in the Internet age, and Jarvis received a full refund from the company less than a week after going public on his blog. What with the parlous state of the U.S. airline industry, one would assume they understand that they risk far more than the cost of a refund by allowing public conversation about their practices to wind up on the wrong side of the blogosphere.

In a filing with the FCC (PDF) earlier this year, Comcast claimed that bloggers constituted a sufficient check on bad behavior. (Touching, albeit self-serving in that Comcast was desperate at the time to keep regulators at bay.) More recently, The New York Times chronicled Comcast's efforts to engage bloggers in hopes of burnishing its reputation. The cable company finished dead last in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index.

By the way, Baker told me, he was "a huge JetBlue fanboy" before all this happened.

Obviously, no longer.

Update: After posting this story, I heard back from Bryan Baldwin, JetBlue's manager of corporate communications, who says the company plans to take "another look" at Baker's claim.

"If we see what appears to be a big customer service problem, where we might not have followed through as we would like, we'll definitely get the right people involved and doublecheck," he said.

He also says one member of JetBlue's PR team is charged specifically with "tracking blogs and online conversations" to respond in case of customer dissatisfaction.

Maybe time to make a tweak? JetBlue