David Neeleman on What’s Wrong with JetBlue and How to Fix It (Across the Aisle, Part 3)

And now, it’s time to talk JetBlue. When I read a recent article where David Neeleman talked about JetBlue, I thought he sounded bitter, so I had to ask. It’s clear that he’s still bugged by what happened at JetBlue, and as a shareholder, he wants to see things change. You can catch up with part one and part two, if you missed them.

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Cranky: Some would say that the rapid growth of JetBlue is what caused you problems there. Is that an issue here? Or do you not think that was issue there?
David Neeleman, CEO Azul Airlines: I’m not gonna tell you it wasn’t an issue. JetBlue was kind ofAcross the Aisle from David Neeleman built for lower fuel costs than what we had. So it took an adjustment period. That was part of it, certainly infrastructure. I was more focused with growing the business from a marketing perspective and I think our operation didn’t keep up maybe as well as it should have.

I had a COO [current President and CEO Dave Barger] that was in charge of that. I think the Valentine’s Day storm showed a weakness in operational recovery areas so that’s an issue. I looked at that experience in Brazil and we have a great team of people down there. We built all of our systems in the beginning, where JetBlue should have been. There was some people who were supposed to be focusing on that, obviously they weren’t. So I’m not leaving anything to chance.

Cranky: It seems, the article I was reading, it seems that there’s still sort of an almost bitterness about what happened there. Maybe it’s just a dissatisfaction. Does it still bother you? Obviously, Azul means blue. Is this still something that bugs you?
David: Yeah, it bugs me. You had a board that was rash and hasty and made a decision that didn’t need to be made at the time. The crewmembers didn’t really deserve that kind of treatment either. They had a certain vision for the company, an expectation. All of a sudden overnight that was changed. Things are different at JetBlue today. They’re not the same as they were.

Maybe some areas they needed a change, but you know, the camaraderie we had, a lot of things we did in the customer service area, I just don’t think it’s the same company and there are a lot of people lamenting that. Every time I fly, people say such things. “Wish you were back.” I wish they would say, “We’re doing great, it’s awesome. Thanks for starting it.” I would much rather have that.

I built JetBlue for one reason. I didn’t need the money. I wanted it to be a great place to work, a great place for people to fly differently than the other guys. Same thing at Azul. It’s your legacy, you know. And you want to make sure. I still think JetBlue is better than anyone else but it’s not the same. When you get bigger, it’s hard to keep it the same. But Southwest Airlines has been around for 40 years and they’ve been able to maintain a lot of happy people working there.

Cranky: You’re still a fairly large shareholder. As a shareholder, what would you want to see JetBlue do differently?
David: I would like to see it focus on customer service. I tell people that at Azul. I only have two goals for the company. I want this to be the best place you ever worked and I want every customer to say, “wow, that was a great flight.” If you can do those two things, you’re gonna grow and be successful. That’s really it. It’s just a focus. I’ve been on some delayed flights on JetBlue lately and didn’t hear anything about the customer bill of rights. In those days, we did things that were special.

JetBlue still wins the JD Power award every year but if you look at the scores, it’s all the TVs and more legroom. If you look at the customer contact scores, Southwest wins all those awards, those categories. And they never did. I think you can make a difference in a commodity business.

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Cranky: Back to Azul for a second then I’ll let you go. Can we expect to see Azul outside the Brazilian borders?
David: The market size just isn’t that big. Don’t know if you saw the news on TAM and LAN, still trying to figure out what the heck that is, but the cross border stuff in South American countries is just a tiny fraction. Maybe it’s just a play for TAM to get some management over there, but the market’s just not that big and the market in Brazil is huge. So we’re going to focus on Brazil. Never say never, but we’ve got plenty to do.

Cranky: Not likely to see any widebodies coming in, right?
David: No, not now. We’re small guys now. We like smaller – much bigger opportunity there.

Cranky: I appreciate it. Good luck continuing to grow Azul. Maybe one of these days I’ll be down there and take it for a ride.
David: That’d be great, we’d love to have you.

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