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Crises are defining moments that tell us about our shortcomings and test our ability to cope.

JetBlue Airways’ defining moment came last week, when the unprepared airline stranded hundreds of passengers inside idle aircraft at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for periods of up to 11 hours. How the airline—which in a manner of days lost a lot of the passenger goodwill it had built since its inception in 1999—is handling the situation provides a valuable lesson to IT vendors and channel companies.

The worst of the crisis took place on Valentine’s Day when a brutal ice storm froze much of the Northeast. Five days later the airline was still trying to regroup.

I was caught up in the mess. Making my way to Long Beach, Calif., on Feb. 15, the second day of the crisis, I found myself sitting in an Airbus 320 at JFK for more than four hours while the aircraft waited to be de-iced. One plane in front of us took more than an hour to get de-iced. It was clear the airline had nowhere near enough ground crew to handle the volume of flights it was trying to get out of JFK under trying circumstances.

On Sunday afternoon, back in New York, I opened my personal e-mail inbox to find an apology from the airline, accompanied by a promise to refund me for the nightmare flight to Long Beach and a voucher for a free round trip within the next year.

Monday morning I read the front-page story in The New York Times in which JetBlue CEO David Neeleman apologized profusely and promised to do right by the customers the fiasco affected.

Neeleman admitted JetBlue’s management wasn’t strong enough, that its shoestring communications system was inadequate and that its undersize reservations system couldn’t cope. The CEO said the airline would work hard to fix its problems and was considering enacting a “passengers bill of rights” that in the future would compensate customers for each hour they sat stranded in an aircraft.

The airline then bought expensive full-page ads in 20 newspapers to apologize.

Let me be very clear: Being a JetBlue passenger in the midst of this crisis was no fun. And the company certainly deserves criticism for allowing this to happen. Already it was clear to me when I traveled on JetBlue last fall that the airline was trying to do too much with too few people. If I could figure it out, you would think that so could management.

But you can’t change the past, and begrudgingly, I have to express my admiration for how Neeleman has handled himself. He hasn’t tried to hide or make excuses. He accepted the company’s culpability and promised improvements.

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I can’t tell you how many times I wished an IT vendor or channel executive had done the same. I’ve seen too many companies handle crises by pretending nothing was wrong. Not surprisingly, some of them are no longer in business.

IT vendors and channel companies should take away two important lessons from the JetBlue debacle. First, if you grow too fast without staffing up properly or upgrading your systems, you invite trouble. Second, if you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, you must make things right.

Especially as the industry moves toward managed services, with technology providers assuming greater responsibility than ever for their customers’ systems, it is imperative to control your growth and to know how to react when things go wrong. I suspect JetBlue will provide a case study for years to come at PR schools, and it should do the same for executives in the IT world.

Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner. He can be reached at