Posh leather seats. Good spacing between them. Three-dozen channels of Direct TV. A hundred channels of Sirius XM Radio. First bag free. And, most of all, Service With a Smile.
This is no legacy airline; it is JetBlue, which launched service out of Kennedy with two routes 14 years ago, and has grown into the best airline in the business.
In case you can’t tell, I love JetBlue. In fact, I love it so much that the only time I take another carrier is when business takes me to one of the few U.S. cities not in the JetBlue orbit.
Dozens of carriers have come and gone since the JFK-based carrier opened for business in 2000. Only one parlayed people power into a business model that allowed it to survive snowstorms, sneak attacks, and economic slumps.
Proud to call itself “New York’s hometown airline,” JetBlue has expanded to 86 cities, reaching all the way to Lima, Peru. Latin America represents 30 percent of its rapidly-growing route system.
“We came in with a consumer focus,” says Morgan Johnston — manager of corporate communications — from his gleaming Long Island City headquarters. “We tried to find the middle ground between what the legacy carriers were doing and what the low-cost carriers were doing.
“There’s a sweet spot in between — we succeeded in earning our way into a second decade of service without mergers, acquisitions, or (the trauma of) a bankruptcy car wash.”
“We’re profitable and we’ve done it on our own, with our own people, our own ideas, and without any alternatives to maintain that profit.”
Service With a Smile is such a JetBlue mantra that patrons don’t wince when a flight attendant refers to “the JetBlue experience.”
As Johnston says, “It’s cyclical. If we do everything to make sure customers are having a great experience, they’re going to come on board with a smile. Nothing will make our crewmembers react more positively than seeing that smile — it turns into a wonderful upward spiral of people wanting to hit those expectations and people who expect those expectations to be met.”
“Those of us on the corporate side stay up at night worrying about it, to make sure that smile keeps pointing upward instead of downwards.”
The airline doesn’t serve hot meals and doesn’t have an in-flight magazine, but also doesn’t charge a bag-checking fee.
“We make sure our customers are informed on what’s available to them,” says Johnston, a Vermont native who joined JetBlue shortly after its 2000 debut. “They have an opportunity to upgrade to ‘Even More Space,’ buy a blanket, or more hearty onboard food. But the core experience of ample legroom, free snacks, beverages, and entertainment is without compre. It’s important for us to make sure our customers are informed about what they have.”
It wasn’t always so transparent.
The infant carrier was almost swept away by the fallout from the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Eight years later, when a snowstorm stranded several planeloads of passengers on the JFK tarmac for hours, the airline crafted a “Passengers Bill of Rights” that promised passengers that such a fiasco would never happen again.
“We face our crises head-on,” Johnston says. “We learn from our mistakes and hope our customers respect our honesty and intentions and give us another chance.”
A Customer Insight Team, based in Salt Lake City, reviews comments and calls and keeps close tabs on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.
According to Johnston, “We mine social media for comments that can help us understand what we’re doing right and where we might have room for improvement. We want to know if our passengers will recommend JetBlue to friends or family members. We can tell if any particular route is performing above any other route. We can then translate that into all our other markets.”
Always among the aviation leaders in innovation, JetBlue has just added 196-seat A-321 planes on routes that require more capacity, added Curacao to its roster of destinations, and created Mint service on transcontinental flights.
Unlike the Junior Mint of Seinfeld fame, or my mint condition Hank Aaron rookie card, JetBlue Mint means a 16-seat premium section that features four flying suites. Though not all of the Mint seats are suites, passengers who pick them can close sliding doors for complete privacy, ostensibly for sleeping but perhaps to snuff out the sounds of crying babies or protect against airborne germs.
“Our customers really wanted a premium experience in the transcontinental market,” Johnston says. “Since we started the service, we found that one-third of our passengers had never flown JetBlue before and one-third who had stopped flying us coast-to-coast are coming back because they appreciate this new experience.”
Mint launched on the New York to Los Angeles route but will expand this month to JFK-San Francisco flights. The carrier is considering expanding the service to its transcontinental routes from Boston as well.
Johnston works out of JetBlue corporate headquarters, housed in the sleek MetLife building on Queens Boulevard. It’s a little more than a stone’s throw from Kennedy Airport, the primary base for its 16,000 employees — called crewmembers in the airline’s vernacular. Pilots, navigators, and flight attendants in JetBlue’s distinctive black-and-blue uniforms are a common sight, especially in the well-stocked lounge area where they can share spare time with colleagues.
Three floors of offices show that JetBlue is firmly planted in the 21st century, with a giant weather map taking center stage on one floor and employees of each department berthed in open cubicles to ensure idea sharing. Although paychecks are not equal, cubicles often are. Chief executive officer Dave Barger does occupy a corner but has space no bigger than many lower-level employees. He’s only the second CEO in JetBlue history, with former British Airways executive Robin Hayes slated to become the third in February.
Although blue is the most prominent color throughout the three floors of offices, the first thing visitors spot in the lobby is a bright-red model airplane, painted in support of the FDNY Foundation. The plane, which bears the jetBlue logo and the Fire Department of New York shield, is modeled after the full-sized plane named BlueBravest (JetBlue makes flying more personal by adding names to aircraft previously known only by numbers).
There’s no scale model of JetBlue Park, spring training home of the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Florida but Johnston mentions that the Green Monster recreated there is actually 4 feet taller than the original.
“I’ve been here 14 years and don’t have plans to leave anytime soon,” he says. “It’s a great company. The culture has evolved and grown up.”
“There are changes, which are important, but the same sense of values-based culture. As long as we keep those values in mind and keep that New York attitude, we’re going to be fine.”