Q&A: JetBlue's new captain; Troubled airline's boss is focused on growth and on ensuring that one-day weather 'events' don't snowball

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.

Well, my goal is to learn from the history books. Let's give credit to the legacy carriers. There's a lot to be learned from them. But there's also a lot to learn not to do. I think our ability to diversify our network, which makes it look like we're connecting traffic, makes us look more like a legacy carrier. But the No. 1 lesson to be learned from the legacy carriers - I prefer to call them the Big Guys - is culture. Culture is our competitive advantage. People like flying JetBlue.

Do you think that after eight years of operation, the newness has worn off of JetBlue?

It's always important to keep refreshing the brand. That means working on designs, new uniforms, a new Web site. We need to let people in the new communities we fly to know that we are there. You can't rest on yesterday's success.

If you had it to do all over again, what would you have done differently to help avoid the Valentine's Day meltdown at Kennedy?

I would have looked harder at the forecast. If the forecast changes, great. We can fly. But if not, we'll cancel. We've also got to communicate [with passengers].

Neeleman would almost never cancel a flight. Will that change?

As we grow, and as Kennedy grows, it makes more sense to wait on Mother Nature. Are we more likely to cancel? Yes, I guess we would.

In a March storm, JetBlue canceled many flights at Kennedy. In fact, some critics said JetBlue went to the other extreme after the Valentine's Day episode.

I don't think we could have operated any more flights than we operated that day. What's really important, if you have a one-day [weather] event, [is] keep it a one-day event.

Recently, JetBlue adopted a "Passengers Bill of Rights" to better provide for customers stuck on grounded planes. Do you think every airline should do the same?

This was the right thing for us to do. Whether it's the right thing for the industry to do, that should be up to each carrier. But it shouldn't be done by Washington. I would like to think we can do what's right for our business.

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