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Why JetBlue Went From Take-Off To High Flier

by Alf Nucifora

In an insightful interview with Gareth Jones, VP, Corporate Communications at JetBlue, I got the inside scoop on why the airline has done so well to date and shows no sign of losing its edge. Here's what he had to say.

Q. Where did the name JetBlue come from?

A. The airline industry is poorly branded in this country. When you think of American or United, what's their brand image? Mostly, just big. So, taking a leaf from Europe, we were looking for a brand that really meant something, but, also countered the perceived stigma of flying a low-fare carrier. If you think back to the '90's, no one ever talked about a low-fare airline by name. If you bought a cheap ticket on Tower or Kiwi or ValuJet, you probably said "I got a really cheap ticket to Florida." You didn't say, "Hey, guess what? I'm flying Cheapo Air!" because it was one of those situations where you gave up a bunch of benefits to get that cheap ticket, whether it was on-time performance, service or product quality. We set out to change that by really focusing on what the product and the brand would mean to people. We differentiated the product above and beyond price.

There are very few low-fare, start-up carriers that have been successful. There are understandable reasons why they fail. They start out with insufficient capital. Ultimately, it's a very competitive industry and if you build your business plan on the premise that flying from X to Y costs $1,000 and we're going to do it for $200, it's a short-lived strategy because the incumbent carriers who fly from X to Y lower their fares to match yours. At the end of the day, if customers see that they can either fly a big, incumbent, well-known carrier with loads of planes and frequent flyer miles, or this lesser-known new guy, at the same price, then why fly the new guy? So, taking that lesson to the extreme, we said, "Ok, how do we differentiate our product and our brand so that when the big guys match our fares (as they did from day one), people will still choose JetBlue?" The product part was easy. We started out with a lot of capital…invested in new planes…better seats, in-flight TV…generated a lot of excitement. But, the brand differentiation was just as important. We said, "People hate airlines. They're right on the list with lawyers, the post office, telephone companies…it's one of the ten most hated industries. How do we solve that"? And, we just listened to what people wanted. Be nice, be flexible, be on time and be comfortable. That's the heart of it. Be surprising. Try new things. But, overall, be what the rest aren't.

Q. Why Blue?

A. We internally referred to ourselves as the anti-airline and wanted a name that reflected that stance. Our VP of Marketing, Amy Curtis-McIntyre, who came over from Virgin Atlantic, was taken out to dinner by the Board and after dessert and a few glasses of wine, they said, "Ok, now name it. You're a New Yorker. What would you call it?" and she came up with "Taxi". They thought it was absolutely genius. It's New York. It's cheap. It's easy transportation. So, we were going to have yellow and black checkerboard livery; we were going to put photos of the pilots on the cockpit door. That stuck around for about six months, but we have a very consensus-driven culture here and finally we said to the FAA…the tower at JFK…what do you think about this name "Taxi"? And, they said, "Are you kidding? For many pilots landing here, English isn't their first language and taxi is a verb we use to move aircraft…" They thought we were crazy and would confuse the world. We agreed, and "Taxi" got dropped. Finally, we went to a well-known name development firm. One name they recommended was "True Blue". We didn't like it because it seemed a bit too goody-two shoes. But we felt that if we announced "True Blue", we could, over time, coach people to nickname it "Blue" and fade out "True". Unfortunately, Thrifty Rent-a-Car already had "True Blue" copyrighted.

Ironically, we were right under the wire, about to put in our DOT submissions. And we didn't have a name. It was a Friday night and Amy (head of marketing) and David (CEO) were on the phone. He said, "Look, we've really got to sort this out." She told him that she was late for dinner at her in-laws and "couldn't do this now". They had been going over and over it for the last several months. He thought we should just go with "Blue". She screamed at him and said, "For God sake David, for the 90th time, 'Blue'…you can't trademark it…it's public domain…you need to first call it something else…'Fly Blue' or 'JetBlue' or whatever." And he said…"Wait, what was the last one you said…'JetBlue'. I like that!" And that's how it was named. It's one of those names that's genius because it's very contemporary, but it's retro wink as well. The whole point was to have a bit of a smirk and a bit of a nod to Kennedy's jet age. But we knew that a name is just a name in the end. It's the company that gives it meaning and reputation.

Q. To that point, give me the defining culture of the organization?

A. "Bringing humanity back to the airline industry." It initially seemed grandiose and a bit ambitious. But, bringing humanity back is the ultimate strategy. It's friendliness, flexibility and caring. So you look at a $25 change fee vs. $100…someone who will let you stand-by on any flight that day…it's humanity. That's been our guiding mantra. It's not just about TVs and who's got the newest planes and the biggest engines. It's also about who can look after you better.

Q. If I'm a customer and I'm getting on a JetBlue flight for the first time, what's the instinctive point-of-difference?

A. Someone looks you in the eye. How many times have you gotten on a plane and the flight attendants are standing in the back and nobody cares. We have pilots and flight attendants at the front of the plane who say "Hi. Welcome. Can I help you find your seat?" Our flight attendants actually put peoples' luggage in the overheads. At the airport, our procedures are flexible and customer-focused. If we can bend a rule to make the experience better, we'll do it. When you're on-board, it's an interaction. For example, we've banished the food trolleys. The flight attendant will take orders…it's not just "Coke. Next!" And the snacks are unlimited; take what you like. We have snack baskets with five or six different items. Take two or three.

Q. If I tell you to go out tomorrow and find 3000 new employees, who would you steal from? Not necessarily an airline.

A. It's preferred that every new hire have some level of customer service experience. We get people form all walks…those just out of college… mothers returning to work…ironically, a surprising chunk of our flight attendants are ex-firefighters and police officers. It's targeted selection hiring in search of candidates who went beyond the call and did something extraordinary for a customer. If you can't think of the last time you did something nice for someone that wasn't expected, you probably won't be hired here.

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