Here's a novel idea for an airline: "People don't need to be treated like cattle." Founder David Neeleman's basic premise is giving lift to jetBlue, the lone, thriving survivor of a disastrous year for new airlines. In recent weeks, such upstarts as Pro Air, Legend and National all went bust, casualties of high fuel prices and hypercompetition from the big boys. That's not as likely to happen to jetBlue, whose business plan is well designed, well funded and well targeted.
Neeleman loved the potential he saw in New York City, largely considered a competitive hellhole for discounters. "Nineteen million people and no local low-cost carrier?" he asked after a press conference in December announcing jetBlue's millionth customer and third profitable month. "Even a small piece of this market is a lot."
Neeleman, a hyperactive 41-year-old who sold a previous start-up to Southwest Airlines, can often be found flitting around jetBlue's gates at Terminal 6 at John F. Kennedy Airport, the company's home base, chatting with the passengers filling his spanking-new blue-and-white jets. From J.F.K., jetBlue flies to Burlington, Vt.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ontario, Calif.; and eight other cities. One-way fares range from $49 to $249.
Borrowing strategies from Southwest, Neeleman aims at routes where fares are high, uses only one kind of plane and treats his customers as if they actually matter. Before the first reservation was taken, Neeleman got more financing than any other start-up had ever seen, $128 million from the likes of George Soros and Chase Capital. Then he bought a handful of factory-fresh Airbus 320s, outfitted them with cushy leather seats and put a satellite TV at every one.
And the topper: flying from J.F.K., which most New Yorkers avoid like a contagion ward because it's farther from Manhattan than LaGuardia Airport and often clogged with international flights. Yet J.F.K. has become jetBlue's trump card. The airport is congested only about five hours a day, and the rest of the time--when jetBlue operates most of its flights--traffic is relatively light.
Neeleman has been equally successful at creating buzz. jetBlue's sophisticated, color-coordinated branding campaign extends from its hip ad copy--"jetBlue Airways brings humanity"--to the blue upholstery on the sleek, brushed-steel chairs in the terminal. It's a branding strategy for a company that's planning to be around a long time. Still, it's fair to ask Neeleman why jetBlue won't auger in like so many other start-ups. No problem, says the founder: "We're built for a recession. We've got some of the lowest costs in the industry and the best management. Now all we have to do is keep the people happy--both those who work for us and those who fly us." Given the way the industry treats them now, that should be the easy part.