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The chief who democratized flight

This airline CEO wants to know what his passengers and customers think,

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

so he asks them himself.

David Neeleman shook up the airline business in 2000 with a new twist: a discount carrier that gives customers comforts such as satellite TV, reserved seats and fancy snacks. JetBlue's 46-year-old founder and chief executive was in the Tampa Bay area Thursday to accept the Tony Jannus Award for contributions to commercial aviation. In an interview Thursday with the St. Petersburg Times, he explained why he helps vacuum the rows of a JetBlue plane. Here are some excerpts:

You've made changes to JetBlue based on e-mails you receive and discussions with customers when you fly. Why is it important that the CEO does his own customer research?

It's just trying to understand the tenor of the business. More than reading e-mails, I spend time in the field. This week, I flew to Oakland, came back from San Jose and then got on a plane and flew down (to Tampa) last night. Instead of just getting on the back row, tuning out and watching TV ... I go through the cabin and talk to the customers. I learn a lot, but it also buoys me up. When I have people say, "I'm a 3-million-mile flier on (another) airline, but now I've flown JetBlue, I don't fly anybody else," it's a pretty positive thing. I don't think the CEOs of the big airlines would go through and get the kind of reaction I get. Must be why they stay in first class, and they hide up there.

What kind of techniques does management use to keep employees motivated?

One of the things we do is a monthly "pocket session" where (JetBlue president) Dave Barger and I are in an open forum. There's only going to be 200 or 300 people in the room there. But it is videotaped and broadcast to everybody (on an intranet site). We get maybe 5,000 of our 9,000 folks to tap in and look at that sometime during the month.

Last night when I got in, it wasn't just hop off the airplane and go to the hotel. We (helped) turn the plane and then spent 15 or 20 minutes with the crew there to show how much we appreciate them and shake all their hands. I vacuumed the (airplane) rows that needed a little attention. It's all about teamwork.

You're known for enjoying practical jokes. Is it true you sent a free JetBlue flight pass to the son of Delta Air Lines chief executive Jerry Grinstein?

He basically announced that his son likes flying JetBlue. He was just trying to make the point to his people that (Delta has) got a problem here when (his) own son would rather fly on JetBlue than fly Delta. We made sure he was able to fly on JetBlue whenever he wanted to. I sent (Jerry Grinstein) the card to give to his son. And he (replied by e-mail), "Here you are trying to steal all my business and now you're trying to take my own son away from me." He's a good guy.

How does your Mormon faith play a role in how you approach business?

JetBlue's a great company. It's got great people. But it's not the only thing in my life. You have a greater mission in life, and that's to serve others and to take care of others. Happiness is derived from service (and) from building something and having the fruits of that building. But if you can do well by doing good, that's certainly preferable to stepping on people.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

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