The massive service breakdown at JetBlue Airways Corp. over the last week raises a provocative question for travelers who use Philadelphia International Airport: How come the same thing did
The question is legitimate because Philadelphia has a reputation, particularly among US Airways customers, for aggravating them with lost bags, late flights, and some less-than-friendly employees.
Last week's snow and ice eviscerated schedules for all carriers serving the Northeast, leaving some passengers at Philadelphia airport seething and some US Airways workers grumbling about a lack of help from the airport in getting ice and snow off ramp areas near terminals.
But the experience of the so-called legacy airlines - those like US Airways Group Inc. that were in business before industry deregulation in 1979 - enables them to recover more quickly than JetBlue has when weather wreaks havoc with schedules, industry experts say.
"There's a lot more gray hair at older airlines than there is at JetBlue," said Tim Sieber, general manager of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo.
In recent memory, no other carrier that operates connecting hubs at major airports - including US Airways in Philadelphia - has had as much trouble recovering from a major storm as JetBlue has. The airline, which does not serve Philadelphia, has canceled almost a quarter of its flights since last Tuesday.
JetBlue's troubles may have started well before the first flakes appeared - because expectations about it ran high. The seven-year-old airline, which is based at New York's Kennedy Airport, has a hip image, with live television on all flights and a cheerful, young staff in airports and on airplanes.
JetBlue has received extensive, favorable media coverage in its hometown, the media capital of the world. It consistently finishes at or near the top when customers are asked to name their favorite airline, or one with great service.
But the good reputation may not have helped attract enough seasoned veterans of snowstorms and hurricanes who are accustomed to making adjustments to the airline's schedule when flights have to be canceled.
David G. Neelman, JetBlue's founder and chief executive officer, told the New York Times in an interview published yesterday that he was "humiliated and mortified" by the performance. Some of his passengers were trapped for as long as 10 hours on airplanes on the ground at Kennedy on Wednesday, when JetBlue ran out of gates and had no way of letting passengers off to return to the terminal.
Because it has grown rapidly, JetBlue did not have reservations computers or telephone lines that could keep up with people trying to change reservations or determine the status of flights, Neelman said.
While many employees were available to help, the company did not have managers who knew what to tell them to do, he said. What's more, he added, many of the airline's 11,000 pilots and flight attendants were stranded by the weather far from where JetBlue planes were, he added.
"Sometimes you just need that 20- or 30-year manager or front-line employee, and JetBlue doesn't have them," said Terry Trippler, a former airline official and travel agent who runs his own travel Web site, www.terrytrippler.com. "The legacy carriers have been through this so many times, they're able to reboot very quickly."
Philadelphia International and the travelers who used it last week had their share of misery, with about a quarter of the scheduled flights canceled Tuesday and about half canceled Wednesday, said airport spokesman Mark Pesce. The airport kept one of its two main, longer runways open at all times, but that slowed air traffic because normally one runway is used for landings and the other for takeoffs, he said.
The biggest headache for the airport and airlines was much the same as it was for road-maintenance crews elsewhere in Pennsylvania: a heavy accumulation of ice. About 70 airplanes were on the ground overnight Tuesday, which added to takeoff delays, Pesce said.
"On a normal snow day, it takes about 15 or 20 minutes to de-ice an airplane," he said. "But there was so much ice built up on them, it was taking about 45 minutes to de-ice one aircraft."
Problems persisted into Friday, when passengers on a US Airways flight from Los Angeles had to wait 90 minutes to get to a gate, and 21/2 hours to get their checked bags. The airline blamed ice on the ramp.
For US Airways, which has about 450 large-jet and commuter flights a day here, the key to coping with the storm was planning, which started Monday with meetings at the airline's Pittsburgh flight-operations center, said David Seymour, vice president of operations control and planning.
Seymour and other US Airways officials said the one aspect of the Philadelphia weather that surprised them was the amount of ice that had built up by Wednesday morning.
But the airline had fewer cancellations than it might have because it made sure enough pilots and flight attendants would be available at the right airports to operate the maximum possible number of flights, he said.
"That was key to US Airways maintaining its operational integrity," he said.
Despite the disruptions of last week, the industry experts cautioned against thinking that JetBlue - or any airline that might have a similar service meltdown - will be driven out of business by its performance.
"The public has a short memory," Sieber said. "This isn't something a fare sale won't fix."
To read Tom Belden's business travel blog, Philly Road Warrior, go to