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Dealing with the Jet Blues: Bad Metrics as Good Indicators

Dealing with the Jet Blues:

Bad Metrics as Good Indicators

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

‘Facts’ are a funny thing. What they mean, on the face of it, might appear pretty obvious. What they represent can be another thing altogether. Measures and measurements are similar to facts in that way. A measure of something is meant represents extent, amount, length, volume, and the like. Measures give us a sense of quantity, of how much of something actually exists. Measures are treated as facts, as representations of amount. We can, as a result, look at things in scale, that one unit more or less shows a greater or lesser extent in a ranking system. As related in the movie Spinal Tap, an amplifier “going to 11” is more than just going to 10. 11 is that little bit extra compared to 10. But what does that measure really mean? Does going to 11 mean that it is qualitative better than 10, despite the seemingly obvious quantitative difference? Why not just make 10 the louder, so that you don’t need 11? Then a dial at 10 in a louder amp would be the same as a dial at 11 in a quieter amp. For that matter, you could make “5” louder than “10,” and confound the whole thing. The permutations are endless.

Miles per hour is another example of a measure. 55 miles per hour is more than 54 mph. But what does 55 mph mean? When talking to my students about the need for context to understand data, I’ll pose the statement that I was driving 55 mph, and ask them what that means. Of course, it means that as a measure of speed, I was driving 55 mph. Seems pretty straight-forward until you consider the lack of context. 55 mph in the fast lane of an freeway might raise the consternation of others who are paying more attention to driving norms than driving rules. Driving 55 mph in a neighborhood would be considered reckless. Even more reckless would be the additional data point that I was driving in reverse. In other words, you need context to make data meaningful.

JetBlue airlines desperately needed some context this last week. On January 12, the story came out that the Wall Street Journal named JetBlue the worst airline for 2017. The rankings were based on what are called “seven key operational metrics”, including: on-time arrivals, canceled flights, extreme delays, two-hour tarmac delays, mishandled baggage, involuntary bumping, and complaints. The reasons given for Jet Blue’s precipitous fall? Significant increased in delayed and canceled flights.


For any traveler, this might seem like a reasonable sword to fall on the head of JetBlue. But we can ask again, what do these measures mean? Ranking which of the seven key metrics is most important might be tough. Additionally, “Not crashing” could be a key metric, but it does not appear to be included in the seven key metrics. To be fair, “crashing” might be included in on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, as well as resulting in a fair number of complaints. At the same time, if you were involuntarily bumped from a plane that had a catastrophic failure, you may very well consider your “bumping” a good thing. No one bumped from the Hindenburg still complained that a seat was rightfully owed him or her, consequences be damned! Again, context matters.

Enter JetBlue trying to provide context. As full disclosure, whenever I fly, I try to go on JetBlue. I haven’t logged enough miles to sniff a Mosaic membership, but that’s okay. I like the seats, and the snacks, and haven’t had many bad experiences. Once my row had televisions that failed to operate, so they gave me a $25 certificate. Another time, a flight attendant spilled a truly insignificant amount of soda on me, and I scored another $25 certificate. In both instances, the certificate was a nice token, and we parted as friends.

Thus, I was surprised to hear about them being the WORST airline given that other airlines had instances such as dragging a person off a plane, yoga pants controversies, a family being kicked off a flight for a 2 year old having his own seat, dead pets, and been in the news for other follies. Not sure if dragging a passenger off a plan against his will counts as “involuntary bumping”, but I’m guessing it does. No word on how they handled his luggage. The amount of bad press produced from this event went beyond its potential impact on the metrics as “one incident.” As far as incidents go, it was a doozy. Some would even take it as an ‘indicator’ of the state of flying todady.

Turning back to JetBlue, what were the reason for their problems in 2017? A few were given. Air-traffic control issues doubled the amount of slowdowns in New York, as well as impacted Boston (two of their hubs). There were storms and runway construction as well in the locations that JetBlue typically flies. All in all, pretty routine stuff, and perhaps one might cast a cynical eye toward these excuses as corporations behaving badly and then trying to evade culpability.

Jasper is sorry your flight was delayed, and that he peed on the carpet. #sorrynotsorry

Jasper is sorry your flight was delayed, and that he peed on the carpet. #sorrynotsorry

Perhaps more compelling is the fact that “JetBlue ran 450 relief flights in a month’s time as part of the hurricane relief effort in the Carribean and Puerto Rico.” Apparently this “stressed the operation” since planes were saving lives by delivering goods and services. Not ironically, the WSJ article author Scott McCarthy observed, “It’s interesting, one thing that…may have hurt them was actually a good thing.” Interesting indeed.

In another bit of full disclosure, my family just adopted a dog (Jasper, nee Manolo) from Puerto Rico. He was found with his litter mates and mom the day before Hurricane Maria hit. He was rescued and treated at the All Sato Rescue shelter there, then flown to Massachusetts to be delivered to the Sterling Animal Shelter. I don’t know if Jasper flew JetBlue, but I’d like to think he did “Fly Blue.” If that was the case, then JetBlue does own me a new carpet since Jasper is not yet housebroken, and fails to understand why go out into a frozen hellscape when you can tinkle and poop in an ambient 65F. But that’s another matter between me and JetBlue.

Beyond my unresolved carpet, JetBlue have attempted to improve things by increasing spare planes (you can never have enough), new boarding procedures, and new cockpit equipment. Well see what 2018 brings.

So what does this all mean? JetBlue performed poorly on some key operational metrics, which are measures of performance. However, JetBlue could have been involved in saving my new puppy, which is a nice indicator of humanness and corporate social responsibility. Having fewer planes to deal with broken ones (resulting in delays and cancellations) as the result of puppy saving sounds like an okay trade. If when cancelling a flight, JetBlue said “We apologize for the inconvenience, but we did just save a bunch of puppies!! Here are their pictures!!”, I’m sure the negative reaction from the restless crowd would have been mitigated. You have to have a cold, dead heart to be angry while looking at cute puppies. Maybe this can be part for their strategy for the new year. They can feel free to use it, but I’ll need more than $25 gift certificate in compensation for the recommendation. And a new carpet.

For me, I’ll keep flying JetBlue whenever possible. I’ll chose to overlook the seven key operational metrics, and hope for the best. In fact, I have a flight across country coming up with JetBlue. I’ll let you know if after that I change my mind, and if Jasper is housebroken yet.