On Flying JetBlue

In light of recent “JetBlue is just another airline” backlash in the blogosphere, here are my impressions of a recent JetBlue flight from Denver to Boston.

First, the television, which JetBlue uses as a big selling point, wasn’t a big deal for me because my flight left at midnight and arrived at 5:30 a.m., so I tried to sleep for most of the flight. I did catch an episode of Jamie’s Kitchen on the Food Network, which was nice. The quality of the DirectTV signal wasn’t very good on take-off or landing; there’s a blurb about this before the service starts that is relatively honest about this limitation; mid-flight, however, it was crystal clear. Another limitation of the television service, at least on overnight flights, is that a majority of the 24 channels switch to playing infomercials at some point, so the content selection when I woke up around 5:00 a.m. was pretty poor.

Perhaps the biggest difference between JetBlue and other airlines (like Air Canada and America West, which I flew earlier in my trip), was the quality of the customer service. From check-in through boarding, to an introduction to the flight from the captain out in the cabin before we took off, JetBlue staff were universally helpful, witty, and honest.

Check-in took about 15 seconds. I handed my passport to the person at the desk, she tapped a couple of keys and handed me my boarding pass. I have never understood why it takes Air Canada check-in staff enough typing to compose a small essay just to give me my boarding pass; I guess JetBlue never understood this either.

Denver International Airport is somewhat confusing if you’re used to other airports: check-in is in one building, boarding is in a series of concourses that are reached, after going through a central security checkpoint, by an underground train system. This isn’t explained very well anywhere, and the system assumes that everyone knows what the word “concourse” means, which I didn’t. After I figured out the system, however, everything flowed well. Of course it’s easy to run an airport at 11:00 p.m. when there are only 2 or 3 flights left to go out.

Boarding the plane was low-key and well conducted. A gate agent with a sense of humour made a lot of helpful announcements, well in advance of boarding, about how things would proceed. Advance boarding was offered not only to “passengers with small children” but also to “anyone else who wants a little more time to get to the gate.” That was a nice touch.

Once on board, I found the in-flight crew equally charming. When flying Air Canada, especially in recent years, the flight attendants act like school principals, guarding the plane from the passengers and trying to keep everyone in line. In contrast, the JetBlue crew actually appeared to care about whether passengers were comfortable. In the end, this is simply a matter of attitude, and the practical effects aren’t great. But flying is stressful, and every little bit of JetBlue friendliness is amplified just as much as every bit of Air Canada surliness.

About 10 minutes before take-off, the captain came out into the cabin and introduced himself, gave a brief overview of the flight, assured us he was going to keep the cabin warm, and would stay off the PA, so that we could sleep, and entertained any questions. He was dressed in a leather jacket, and looked more like a steely bush pilot than a doctor with wings. I liked that.

We left on time.

Once in the air, the in-flight service was freed from the ungainly cart: flight attendants came by with an order pad, asked you what you wanted, and came back later with your drink on a tray. Again, it was a small thing, but the effect was to make cart-ridden airplanes appear dinosaur like.

True to his word, the captain kept the cabin warm, and stayed off the PA until 10 minutes before landing. I had three seats to myself, so I was able to stretch out and get some sleep. The leather seats weren’t as much of a big deal for me as they would have been if I had been sitting for the entire flight, but they seemed comfortable.

We arrived on time.

JetBlue arrives at Terminal E at Logan, which isn’t exactly a temple of modernity (not that anywhere at Logan is), and this means a hike to another terminal if transferring to another airline.

While it shouldn’t be revolutionary to receive good service, to leave and arrive on time, and for small nice touches to loom so large in importance, in today’s airspace, it is. Flying Air Canada feels like flying a Greyhound Bus staffed by unhappy prison convicts. JetBlue feels, ironically, like flying did 25 years ago, albeit with better aesthetics, and less oppulence.

Jared says “Just because your doctor’s office has cable TV in the waiting room doesn’t mean that getting a colon screening has actually become something fun to do.” And he’s right. But it helps. And so does having a doctor that appears to care about your well-being, and executes the procedure with good humour and efficiency. Flying is stressful and, in the end, not a natural thing for humans to do; JetBlue is a good airline because it knows this, and takes a thousand little steps to mitigate it.

By the way, I’m still waiting for David Neeleman to invite me to lunch.


Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on April 18, 2004 - 19:07 Permalink

Here’s the thing: I fly more than most people. And a lot of my flying is with Air Canada. Sometimes that’s because they have a virtual monopoly here. And sometimes it’s because they have the best connections to where I want to go. And sometimes it’s because I’m too lazy to do whatever research needs to be done to connect with another airline.

I fly hundreds of thousands of miles in a year, touring all across Canada and down into the States and into the UK, and I have to say that when people jump up and start bashing Air Canada and its people for shoddy service, I just have to shrug. That hasn’t been my experience.

Air Canada’s people are burdened by some restrictions and policies that others aren’t, to be sure: the WestJet “we’re all so chipper and so much fun and look at us use the cabin sound system for stand-up comedy” thing isn’t going to happen on Air Canada. Everything is done by the book, and in both official languages, and yeah, that can seem staid and kinda stick-up-the-arse.

But I have found — with a very few exceptions — that the people who work for Air Canada are helpful, pleasant, accomodating, and professional. I say this in very general terms — no doubt anybody can grab an apocryphal story out of a hat to demonstrate they can be miserable — hell, I can do that, too. And I can come up with a story of unusual kindness or helpfulness, and that would be just as atypical. Truth is, most of Air Canada’s people are in the fat part of the customer service curve.

I can resent the hell out of Air Canada as an institution — and I do. But the people who work for that institution are … well, people. There are good and bad among them, and all of them are labouring in a poisonous environment peopled by greedy, shortsighted unions (as if there is another kind); incompetent, aloof management; and daily news reports that their jobs are in jeopardy. All the while dealing with morons who try to stuff Buicks into overhead bins, and can’t quite grasp the concept of “return to your seat”.

So, you can keep telling me that Air Canada is populated by soulless trolls whose goal is to make you unhappy; I’ll continue to shrug. That has not been my experience. But if it’s been yours — wow … my sympathies for your bad luck.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 19, 2004 - 18:43 Permalink

Nils, you remind me of Patty Hearst.

Nils's picture
Nils on April 19, 2004 - 20:35 Permalink

Not sure I get the reference, but I’d be happy to take the bank account.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 19, 2004 - 20:47 Permalink

From the Free Dictionary:

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological state in which the victims of a kidnapping, or persons detained against their free will — prisoners — develop a relationship with their captor(s). This solidarity can sometimes become a real complicity, with prisoners actually helping the captors to achieve their goals or to escape police.

The syndrome has been named this way after the famous bank robbery of Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm which lasted from August 23 to August 28, 1973. In this case the victims kept on defending their captors even after their 6 days physical detention was over. They showed a reticent behaviour in the following legal procedures too. The term was coined by the criminologist and psychologist Nils Bejerot, who assisted the police during the robbery, and referred to the syndrome in a news broadcast. It was then picked up by many psychologists worldwide.

Famous cases regarded airplane hostages and kidnapped people, such as Patricia Hearst, who after having been a hostage of a politically engaged military organisation (the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA), joined it several months after she was freed.
Nils's picture
Nils on April 20, 2004 - 01:03 Permalink

Meh. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. But I haven’t run across that many horrible people at Air Canada.

But I’m not stupid, and I’ve never felt like a hostage.