"We could become the best airline and be not all that great." So says JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman, and that's the attitude that got him into our hearts. Neeleman realized that flying had become a premier modern nightmare, worse even than the post office or the DMV. Even the best were rude, cramped, slow, and expensive. So instead of trying to beat the other airlines, he took a different angle. He's not in the aviation industry, Neeleman says, "we're in the customer service business."
That sounds obvious--isn't every entrepreneur in the customer service business?--but it explains how JetBlue has made flying almost fun in a kind of 1950s Pan Am way. A famously frenetic 44-year-old Mormon with nine kids and attention deficit disorder, Neeleman had baptized 200 converts while doing missionary work in the slums of Rio, shilled Hawaii vacation packages, and helped build charter airline Morris Air into a company that the original cheap-and-fun flyer, Southwest Airlines, bought for $130 million in 1993. He was a ferocious salesman who knew something about making people happy; he just wanted to do it better.
So, years before JetBlue's first plane took off, Neeleman and the team he'd assembled for this crazy venture (A new airline? Didn't he remember People's Express?) made long lists of the worst parts of flying. That's why JetBlue has a 20-minute goal for unloading luggage, no required Saturday stays, flight attendants in the aisles to help stow bags, individual TVs (coming soon: pay-per-view), leather seats (comfortable and longer lasting), seat assignments (Southwest is great, but it's a free-for-all), and lids on the coffee cups (in case of turbulence). No detail was beneath consideration. At one meeting Neeleman leaned in close to Michael Lazarus, for four years the company's chairman. "Chicken or steak? Chicken or steak?" he barked. Lazarus had no idea what was going on, until Neeleman calmed down and explained: "Our flight attendants are going to speak in complete sentences."
JetBlue, like Southwest, keeps down repair costs by flying only one kind of jet. To stave off employee resentment (read: unionization), Neeleman helps unload luggage and clean planes and keeps his salary at a reasonable $200,000. Earlier this year, employees were given 17% of their 2003 salaries in profit sharing. This mix of pleased customers and happy, inexpensive workers has given JetBlue a per-passenger-mile cost of 6.08 cents, the lowest in the industry, and a market value of $2.4 billion, bigger than Delta and Continental combined.
But it takes vigilance. On the two days before our interview, Neeleman had been up at 4 a.m. to fly roundtrips from New York to Fort Lauderdale and then San Diego. He estimates that he talked to 500 customers in the two days, and under his eyes he has bags like dried prunes. Still, he paces swiftly as he checks his BlackBerry pager, talks on his cell phone, pops the top of a cookie tin, and frets over a horror-movie fog that threatens to turn JFK airport into a no-fly zone. "Flying was a glamorous thing to do. People enjoyed it because they were appreciated," he says. "We're trying to get back some of that."--Ian Mount
Ian Mount is a New York writer.