A week ago, JetBlue Airways Corp., the low-cost carrier based in Forest Hills that once was a poster child for how to do things right in the airline industry, underwent a management shake-up, with 49-year-old David Barger appointed chief executive. Barger replaced the airline's founder, David Neeleman, who will remain with the carrier as non-executive chairman and focus on long-range strategy.
JetBlue had been having more than its share of problems. It suffered steep losses - including a $22-million loss in the first quarter of this year - and a humiliating service disruption Feb. 14 when the airline canceled more than 1,000 flights during a snow and ice storm, a move that left hundreds of passengers trapped aboard planes at Kennedy Airport.
Barger, who had been JetBlue's president since the airline was formed eight years ago, seemed a perfect replacement. He is considered an "operational guy" rather than a "visionary," as Neeleman is often perceived. Barger previously was a vice president at Continental Airlines, heading its Newark operations.
Barger talked yesterday to Newsday staff writer James Bernstein about his plans and JetBlue's future.
I believe you said, when you were named chief executive, that things would not change much at JetBlue. If so, why replace Neeleman?
I don't recall saying things are going to remain the same. David was always the visionary for this company. He worked on items such as Open Skies [liberalizing the rules for international aviation markets and minimizing government intervention] and alternative fuel measures. Having him do more work on those issues was what the move was all about. Then we would have a new leadership team running the day-to-day operations.
So what changes will we see now that you're at the helm?
Well, now David is upstairs and I'm doing the daily blocking and tackling of the airline business, making sure we have comprehensive fixes in mind when a problem crops up. My job is all about delivering financials, letting people know what's going on in routes and entertainment systems. It may not sound glamorous, but it helps keep the brand strong.
JetBlue has ordered 100 Brazilian-built E-190 aircraft and has an option to buy 100 more. Do you think you will be able to deploy all that capacity, or do you see delays in the orders?
As a result of slowing down deliveries [of E-190s] last year, we feel comfortable about this year's orders. We have another 16 airplanes coming on line, eight Airbus A320s and eight E-190s. That's still a lot of growth. But last year, we sold some A-320s. We may do the same thing this year. If we have to slow growth, we are not afraid to. But we have not made a determination.
To Neeleman, the idea of first-class seating was anathema. How do you feel about establishing such accommodations in the future?
... I'm very comfortable with where we are. We have an all-coach product. But our in-flight entertainment is second to none. I don't see having a model where you say, 'Let's provide comfort for 14 [passengers] at the expense of the other 130.' I've learned never to say never, but with our network today, I feel very good about the configuration of our airplanes.
Are we going to see JetBlue form some partnerships with international airlines in the future?
We're definitely interested in pursuing those partnerships. Our route network at Kennedy Airport is a very valuable asset in that sense. Aer Lingus publicly mentioned discussions with JetBlue. I won't go into the names of any of the others we might be talking to. We're still working through how we do this before we close out on a deal.
Some analysts say JetBlue, now that it is 8 years old, is becoming more like the traditional legacy carriers.
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Neeleman conceded that JetBlue's hiring of Russell Chew as chief operating officer in the aftermath of the storms may have accelerated the timing of the CEO change.