JetBlue, Blogging, and Normal Accidents

Everyone is rightly complaining about how little ongoing information there has been from JetBlue about its troubles. To a perhaps naive way of thinking, it seems like a classic opportunity (one right out of Scoble/Israel’s Naked Conversations text) to use a company blog to humanize things and keep people updated on their efforts to get people out of airplanes, get back on schedule, etc.

So, are they doing it? Nope. Instead JetBlue has this flight operations update page, but it only has the most recent bulletin, with no archive of how the company has dealt with things on an ongoing basis. At least as baffling is that JetBlue CEO David Neeleman has a blog/flightlog, but he hasn’t updated it since February 1st.


Turning to a related issue, most observers are struggling with the question of how a widely-forecast weather problem a week ago led to such problems back on February 14th for JetBlue, and has also led to so many JetBlue cancellations today (Monday). Explanations offered vary, but most are some variant on “the company grew too quick, was under-staffed, and its systems and people couldn’t cope with all the manual reschedulings”.

Okay, but I still find that tough to handle. Even when things are going well, running a busy airline like JetBlue is a logistical nightmare. You don’t get to 11,000 employees and a host of paired cities running this stuff with five guys and a Commodore 64. Granted, this was a series of crazy exceptions to normal fare, but it’s still puzzle how it got so bad and propagated so far forward in time.

While I don’t have a full explanation either, the entire incident sent me back to Charles Perrow’s classic book about disasters in complex systems, Normal Accidents. Here is Perrow from Chapter 5 on Aircraft and Airways:

There are some unique structural conditions in this industry that promote safety, and despite complexity and coupling, technological fixes can work in some areas. Yet we continue to have accidents because aircraft and the airways still remain complex and tightly coupled, but also because those in charge continue to push the system to its limits.

That idea that this was a random event caused by pushing a complex system to its limits strikes me as good an explanation as any. In other words, however, while it was JetBlue this time that was stuck to a New York runway and fell off the map, it was a system error, so next time it could be any airline.


  1. Perrow’s book is one of my all time favorites. When I was a Ph.D. student, it was the first book we read in a class that was a cross between systems dynamics, statistics, decision analysis, and enthnography. Every entrepreneur should read it – it’s a nice corollary to the theory of “complicated mistakes.”

  2. Right, it’s a classic, and one of my Ph.D. favorites too. It’s right up there on my recommended reading list for entrepreneurs, alongside Diane Vaughan’s (one of Perrow’s doctoral students) The Challenger Launch Decision. The latter book looks at how we miscalculate risk when we get away with some something that we shouldn’t have. A great book.

  3. You’re right. The tangible information emanating from David Neeleman and company was/is lacking. Without first-hand knowledge of the details that determined his course of action (or inaction as some believe), it seemed that Mr. Neeleman took a decidedly 20th century approach to mitigating the harsh media spotlight. He simply availed himself to as many mainsteam media types as possible and apologized.
    As I wrote in my blog, the apology was premature and fell short. It was made before the problems were resolved. He also could have supplemented his mainstream apearances with direct-to-consumer communications to keep all constituencies apprised of the specific ACTIONS being taken. He didn’t, and the crisis of confidence continued to have wings.

  4. I know systems can be complex, but can you a story like this coming out of a Southwest Airlines flight? Seems like those people are trained, and more importantly EMPOWERED, to grasp the situation and do whatever it takes to either fix it or leave their passengers with nothing other than the feeling that everything humanly possible was tried. It boils down to communication, regardless of the business, and that’s what I heard passenger interviews repeat AD NAUSEUM: “they never told us anything, except for that we knew as much as they did”. Text book case of how NOT to put your frantic and angry passengers at ease.

  5. Jack Heismann says:

    It’s a bit late – March 1st – but looking for Neeleman’s pitiful interview with Maria Bartiromo in BW this week, I found your post.
    I agree that most of the “reasons” you’ve heard “…grew too fast, understaffed, etc” are just words from people groping for answers.
    But, while Perrow develops some exceptional points in “Normal Accidents” he also created the “Complex System Excuse”. True, complex systems are at greater risk for failure. The airlines do push flight and staffing schedules to maximize return with little slack for a very bad day. But calling Perrow’s theory “as good an explanation as any” ignores the systems controls that have been developed both before and since the book was written.
    Within the sciences (and art) of risk management, contingency planning, crisis management, and disaster preparedness, along with much older sciences such as MVRCA and FMEA, there are strategies that can help control the risk of failure in complex systems, and when failure does occur, dampen the severity of failure outcomes. In the old days we used to call this “Plan B” and “what will we do if plan B doesn’t work?”.
    But, if we believe Neeleman’s own words — there was no contingency planning at Jet Blue, they didn’t have any real “Plan B” and don’t seem to believe that one is needed now. Asked if they’ve gone to the outside for help, Neeleman says they didn’t before the incident and haven’t done so now. He also states, rather bluntly, that Jet Blue believes in learning from past failures, rather than predicting and managing them beforehand.
    If his interview in BW truly represents Jet Blue’s operating philosophy, they haven’t learned a thing, the Valentine’s day melt down will happen again. And it will happen at Jet Blue.
    It’s not about Perrow. It’s about cluelessness.
    Link here: