I once worked for a woman whose favorite expression in times of crisis was, ‘Someone here needs to take a bullet.’ And, sure enough, she and her lieutenants would decide which staff member would fall on his or her sword, accept blame for the latest client servicing debacle and, in effect, take a bullet.
Yesterday, Bill Neeleman took a bullet for JetBlue’s ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre.’ The image-tarnished airline’s founder and CEO was forced to step down by the board. It was a good move since Neeleman is so closely associated with the company’s horrific anticipation of, and response to, a nasty Winter storm that crippled his carrier’s service and wreaked havoc on tens of thousands of passengers.
Switching the top dog of a damaged organization, though, is usually nothing more than a superficial gesture. And, in this case, Neeleman is really just being kicked upstairs to a chairman’s job.
I’m convinced that JetBlue will never win back its lost customers or its once-stellar reputation. At the time I first made that statement, many pushed back and said I was wrong. But, in my mind, JetBlue has become a generic term in the crisis communications dictionary that paints an immediate visual image of tired, angry passengers stuck on planes for nine hours or more while an inept airline management struggles to figure out what to do. Sadly, no amount of advertising or viral marketing will ever overcome that image. JetBlue has become the Enron of airlines. And, yesterday, Bill Neeleman took a bullet for the screw-up.
Don’t be surprised if new CEO Dave Barger’s first move is a name change. Americans will never forgive JetBlue, but so many of our fellow citizens are out-of-touch and unmindful of current events that a name change might be just the ticket for JetBlue to escape its current turbulence, find some smoother airspace and, perhaps, enable Dave Barger to avoid a future bullet aimed in his direction.