January 1, 1914 was an auspicious day for the airline industry.On that day, pioneer aviator Tony Jannus inaugurated the world’s first airline passenger service. Flying between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Jannus piloted his Benoist XIV flying boat biplane, completing the trip in 23 minutes, a small fraction of the time then required by car or rail. The regular fair was $5.00. In a plane that carried only one passenger, every seat was a window seat.
Fast forward to February 2000. A new airline headquartered in New York City launched operations with its inaugural flight between JFK airport and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. With that first flight, JetBlue entered the commercial airline business by pioneering an idea that became its corporate compass: providing the kind of service that would keep customers coming back.
The commercial airline business in the United States has historically been a difficult place to make a profit. If you had invested one dollar a hundred years ago, you would still have only one dollar. Undeterred, JetBlue identified a market niche in which it could create a brand and maintain a profit. JetBlue began flying with a commitment to the kind of customer service that would differentiate it from its competitors.
According to JetBlue’s Vice President for Operational Planning and Training, Warren Christie, when his airline started it was easy to break out from the competition because, “customer service and airline travel were two words you would not see in the same sentence.” JetBlue had found a differentiator. They called it “bringing humanity back to air travel.” Today that niche has grown. JetBlue is now the fifth largest domestic passenger airline in the United States with five percent of the total market. Although still small by comparison to it four largest competitors, JetBlue now employs almost 16,000 employees (they call them “crewmembers”), has a fleet of 196 aircraft, and serves 84 destination cities.
Coming to Orlando
Soon after the start of its flight operations, JetBlue began service to the Central Florida market with a flight from JFK to Orlando. Today, the airline has made Orlando one of its six focus cities with direct flights to 24 destinations, peaking at about 66 departures daily. Another indication of JetBlue’s commitment to Orlando was the opening in 2005 of its state-of-the-art training center known as JetBlue University. In addition to certification training, the University provides orientation for approximately 150 new hires nearly every two weeks. An on-campus housing facility for crewmembers attending JetBlue University is now under construction next door. In November of last year, JetBlue opened its Orlando-based Customer Contact Center providing bilingual service to its customers. Within five years, the center is projected to be staffed by 500 customer support crewmembers. Currently, the total JetBlue workforce located in Orlando is nearing 1,400 crewmembers.
One of the most visually impressive signs of JetBlue’s commitment to Orlando can be seen by taking a tour of JetBlue University’s facilities. In addition to its classrooms and auditorium, most striking are its four flight simulators for its Airbus A320 aircraft, each simulator costing $12 million and weighting 20 tons. There are also simulators for its Embraer E190 aircraft, a water evacuation training device (also known as a pool), and a full-motion cabin trainer that simulates a wide variety of emergency conditions including smoke blowing out of the cabin floor.
Equally impressive is the enthusiasm of our tour guide, Pedro Hernandez who goes by the official title of Supervisor in the Administration, Logistics and Transportation area. Pedro is a native of Puerto Rico and a six-year JetBlue employee. He was attracted to JetBlue by the prospect of travel and by a desire to work in a company known for treating all its crewmembers on a first-name basis.
It Starts at the Top
Among those who are known by his first name is JetBlue’s CEO, Dave Barger. For Dave, the airline industry in general, and JetBlue in particular, are a perfect fit. His father was a pilot, but Dave elected to learn the airline business from the ground up. His first job in 1981 was as a part-time customer service agent in Detroit earning $5.50 an hour.
Today, the personal touch remains part of Dave’s approach, - an approach mirrored by every crewmember throughout the company. In a recent interview with Kenneth Freeman, the Dean of the Boston University School of Management, Dave was asked how the core value of “caring” is promoted system wide. His answer was the single word, “presence.” At nearly all of the airline’s new employee orientation sessions, Dave and the JetBlue leadership travel from New York to personally welcome crewmembers and make presentations. It is a presence carefully maintained throughout the company’s geographically dispersed locations. With a high level of transparency, speed and technical sophistication, JetBlue continuously communicates with thousands of diverse crewmembers in a personal and multi-level way.
High Scores and Higher Profitability
JetBlue positions itself between the ultra-low, discount carriers and the large, network airlines. The majority of its customers are VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) passengers with a mix of business travelers. It is a niche JetBlue has mined profitably over the years. One measure of its customer service success is demonstrated by its reception for the last ten consecutive years of the J.D. Power and Associates Award for “Highest in Customer Satisfaction among Low-Cost Carriers in North America.” Winning eleven years in a row is now the new goal.
JetBlue also looks carefully at something called Net Promoter Scores (NPS), a metric that indicates the percentage of customers who would recommend the airline to their friends. Providing customers with one free checked bag was one popular decision by JetBlue that was influenced by NPS. Over the years, the airline has found a direct correlation between high scores and higher profitability.
Members of a Family
Prominent on the wall of the third floor at JetBlue University are the airline’s five leadership principles. The first principle states, “Treat your people right.” The second says, “Do the right thing.” Are principles like these just nice sounding words on a wall? Do the people who see them (from pilots to ground operation crewmembers) believe them and act on them? Warren Christie says, “Yes.” He says, “It is how family members treat each other. Here it doesn’t matter if you are the CEO or a brand-new crewmember who is on the first day of employment. People have to bring life to the words.”
CEO Dave Barger clearly believes that his airline’s caring approach is a foundational asset when he says, “It’s the cultural side of the equation. Because if we lose that edge we’re going to start to look like everyone else.”
Orlando: A Home Away from Home
Although JetBlue calls itself “New York’s Hometown Airline,” it also refers to Orlando as its home away from home. Orlando is the place where new crewmembers are welcomed into their new corporate family. Orlando is a destination for leisure travelers wanting to be served by an airline that understands leisure travel. Orlando is also a gateway to the diverse Latin America and the Caribbean markets that now account for thirty percent of the airline’s flying.
For JetBlue, its crewmembers and its passengers, Orlando has become an ideal place to “Inspire Humanity.”