Moral of JetBlue’s wipeout: It’s all about the network

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Have you ever noticed when something’s not working properly, it’s because “the computers are down"? Of course, 99 times out of 100, it’s not the computers — it’s the network. But to most folks, they’re one and the same. And that ought to be a clue as to how essential a functioning network is to virtually every business process these days.

Have you ever noticed when something’s not working properly, it’s because “the computers are down"? Of course, 99 times out of 100, it’s not the computers -- it’s the network. But to most folks, they’re one and the same. And that ought to be a clue as to how essential a functioning network is to virtually every business process these days.

Take the granddaddy of all inconvenient outages: JetBlue Airlines’ recent Valentine’s Day debacle. An ice storm stranded thousands of JetBlue travelers, with 1,110 cancelled flights over the course of nearly a week. The company lost $30 million in revenue, and David Neeleman resigned his day-to-day responsibilities as JetBlue CEO (though he remains as chairman). Fortunately, the company seems to have rebounded: The stock took a beating after the event, but has been rising so far this month.

Was IT to blame? Yes and no. In a recent CIO Magazine interview with JetBlue CIO Duffy Mees, the conclusion seems to be the issue was primarily inadequate processes, not insufficient IT.

But here’s the interesting thing: Networks played a singularly integral role in the event from beginning to end. That includes cellular networks publicizing the catastrophe as it unrolled, contact center networks collapsing before the unprecedented call volumes -- and wireless networks serving as the unlikely workaround providing customers with on-the-spot updates.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Mees points out that the first insight into the magnitude of the problem was through passengers’ cellular camera phones: “I think one of the things that contributed to the focus on JetBlue was … the ability to take a picture inside an airplane and e-mail it to a news organization." He attributes part of the operational issue to inadequate contact center infrastructures -- but points out that capacity panning for contact centers is inherently challenging: “You can’t size your 800 inbound infrastructure to handle an event of that magnitude. No [airline] can do that."

So far, networks seem to have contributed to JetBlue’s difficulties. But if they’re part of the problem, they’re also part of the solution. Mees notes that the way to address unprecedented contact-center call volumes is to enhance online capabilities: “We're looking at implementing technologies that empower the customer to do more themselves. So they could go on the Web site and re-book, with no change fees, without needing the agent." And a quick network-based workaround saved the day when it came to providing timely updates on flight status to irate customers: “We wrote an application that ran on BlackBerries. And we went out, grabbed a bunch of BlackBerries and took them out to the airport and handed them to everybody that worked there so that they could tell the customers information about their flight."

The moral of the story? It’s all about the network. And more than anything else, JetBlue’s outage and recovery highlights how business-critical networks have become.

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