What Really Happened At JetBlue

As an airline industry veteran, Charles “Duffy” Mees has had to weather his share of storms over the years. Yet nothing, says the vice president and chief information officer of JetBlue Airways, could have prepared him for the series of events that culminated in a virtual shutdown of the airline’s operations following a Valentine’s Day storm this February.

Barely four months into his post as the CIO of the Forest Hills, N.Y.-based discount airline, Mees watched with increasing dread as a combination of deteriorating weather and poor management decisions led to chaos on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and other major centers in the Northeast, including Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J. By the end of the day, passengers, some of whom had been left stranded on planes for as long as 11 hours, were demanding management’s heads.

Mees, who was still getting a handle on the various systems used to run the airline’s operations after concentrating on completing an SAP enterprise resource planning installation at JetBlue, watched as one by one, the airline’s primary information and communications systems buckled in the following hours and days under extreme loads. Mees joined JetBlue as CIO in November 2006, replacing Todd Thompson, who became CIO for Starwood Hotels. Previously, Mees had served in senior I.T. roles with Reno Air and Independence Air.

The resulting public relations nightmare dealt JetBlue a tough lesson in what can happen when you don’t plan for disaster. Prior to the event, JetBlue was a much admired success story, having grown since its first flights in 2000 into an airline with $2.4 billion in revenue by the end of 2006, operating 500 daily flights to 50 cities. Its sudden fall back to Earth offers CIOs of other fast-growing small and midsize companies a stark lesson in what can go wrong and how to prepare for the worst.

“In the heat of battle at any rapidly growing company, you’re always trying to address your most immediate needs,” Mees says. “But you’ve got to continually remind yourself that you have to take a step back and look at the things that aren’t right in front of you—find out what the tipping points are—before they can impact you.”

Over the three days following the meltdown at JFK, Mees and his information-technology team would barely manage an hour’s sleep each night as they scrambled to support beleaguered employees at airports. Despite the surrounding turmoil, the JetBlue technology team put in a heroic effort to get operations back on track, pushing systems to their limit and creating new databases, tools and applications on the fly to solve problems as they arose.

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