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MAY 2004

Interview with David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue

by Michelle Accorso & Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

All you have to do is compare the lines at the airport; JetBlue is leading the way in the air travel world. Education Update recently had a chance to speak with the man who created it all.

Ed. Update: Tell us about your education.

David Neeleman (DN): My schooling was actually not very long. I graduated from high school and after that attended the University of Utah for one year. I was fortunate enough to go on a church service mission to Brazil for two years. When I came back, I had the intention of going back to college but ended up starting a small company that really took off. I never actually graduated from college.

Ed. Update: Who were some of your mentors?

DN: I had a difficult time in school because I had what was later diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I didn't really get good grades or do well on standardized tests.

My 4th grade teacher, Miss Hatfield, told me “All you need to do is grow up, be successful and hire someone to organize your life. You can do really well, you just need some help with your organization.” She said, ‘If you can get to that point you can be really successful in life.' She saw the seeds of success in me early on and knew that even though I wasn't doing well scholastically, I had certain abilities.

Ed. Update: Can you describe your first airline business?

DN: The airline that I was first involved in was a travel business that ultimately had 41 employees, did about 6 to 8 million dollars a year in sales at the time. I didn't have any background in travel or business and was only 22. Suddenly  the airline called and told me we were out of business. A travel agency then contacted me to help them do the same thing I had done at the first business. I was there for 10 years and created a very successful airline called Morris Air. I learned a lot of lessons from the first business. We later sold that company to Southwest Airlines for 130 million dollars. It's the only airline that Southwest has ever purchased.

Ed. Update: You have nine children so obviously schooling must be very important to you. What is your involvement in the schools?

DN: I'm on the Pencil board and had the privilege of being “Principal for a Day” at Martin Van Buren high school in Queens. They always want to show you the kids that are the best and the brightest in the school, but I wanted to meet the kids with the learning disabilities, to talk to them and let them know that I didn't do well in school but that I worked hard and tried my best—and now all the kids that did better than I did are working for me! I just tell them to work their hardest, not to use their disability as a crutch, and to keep a great attitude. We don't hire intelligence at JetBlue. We hire attitudes. People with good attitudes are the ones that can really get the job done.

Ed. Update: What advice would you give to students who have problems?

DN: Don't give up. Do your best in whatever you do. If you show up to work on time with a good attitude you're already better than 80% of people out there. Don't get discouraged. People who have a good attitude and take care of each other are rewarded.

Ed. Update: What is your formula for success?

DN: JetBlue's formula is all about its people. You have to take care of your people first. By taking care of them, and treating them right, and making sure they have a good place to work where they feel they are respected and that they're valued, their opinion matters, etc., then they go out and take care of the customer. The customer feels that so then they come back and everybody wins.

Ed. Update: What type of training do your employees undergo?

DN: We set high expectations. We tell our employees, “We're going to take really good care of you but we expect a lot from you as well. We expect you to treat our people well and take care of our customers.” We have profit sharing so everyone at JetBlue feels like they're an owner…because they are. They own a piece of the company. You hire the right people, you train them well, pay them well, make them feel like they're part of the team, and success follows.

Ed. Update: Who was it that attracted you to the airline field?

DN: I'm the only guy I know who started three airlines and never worked for one. I didn't really have any mentors. I think the gift and the curse of ADD is that on the one hand you have a deficiency that make people wonder how  you  survived, but you also have the creativity streak that other people don't have. I've always been able to look at a situation, simplify it to the lowest common denominator and really see what the possibilities are. I'm the person who invented e-tickets. Morris Air was the first airline to ever have e-tickets.

Ed. Update: Do you feel that the other airlines are emulating your formula?

DN: Absolutely. For us, we know that it's more than putting a TV in the seatback or coming up with slick marketing or painting the plane a different color. It's really the experience people have on the plane every day—that's not usually something that can be duplicated. Competition hasn't really affected us that much.

Ed. Update: What was the magnitude of JetBlue's suffering after 9/11?

DN: That was during the beginning of our company. We just stuck to our principles of taking care of our customers and it worked out fine. We were able to succeed in a very difficult business. It's a great testament to if you do things for the right reason, you'll be successful. We've done a lot better than our competitors since that time.

Ed. Update: When JetBlue began, it had a limited number of cities that it flew to. What cities are next on the agenda?

DN: We don't really discuss cities we are going to fly to for competitive reasons. We have a lot of places that we want to fly into. We're getting a new plane, a 100-seater (not your typical uncomfortable, scary smaller plane), that can stimulate more markets, and when we do, it's really going to afford us an opportunity to add new cities and increase frequencies to smaller cities. We have noticeable holes in our out-system, in the mid-west and mid-Atlantic regions, so we'll be going into those places quite a bit.

Ed. Update: Do you encounter problems getting access to airports?

DN: I haven't really found it to be a problem. Maybe just about 3 or 4 airports in the whole country that we have problems getting access into.

Ed. Update: How did you find out you had ADD?

DN: When I found out I had ADD in my early 30's, I was quite relieved. Up to that point I thought I just wasn't very smart. My little brother was diagnosed with it, and when he was diagnosed, my mother sent me a book by Ned Hallowell, a now friend of mine. When I read the criteria for those with ADD, I knew immediately I had it.

Ed. Update: What are your thoughts on the corporate link/responsibility to education?

DN: I think it's important. JetBlue's going to do some things for Martin Van Buren High School such as go there and help with the computers and host a trip out to the airport for a career day. JetBlue employees can then answer questions from the students on how they got their jobs. It's important to give back. What I saw in that school were teachers that were really making a difference in the lives of these kids.

Ed. Update: What are some of your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?

DN: [Laughs] I don't have any free time. I'm very involved in my church. I have 9 children. I'm very busy with this company. I'd say my kids are my hobby.#

Education Update, Inc.
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