Saturday, February 13, 2010

JetBlue CEO David Barger reflects on 10 years

LONG BEACH - To celebrate JetBlue Airways Corp.'s 10th anniversary Thursday, President and CEO David Barger wanted to visit crewmembers and business partners within its network cities.

But a severe East Coast snowstorm Wednesday would dampen the celebration for Barger, who ended up staying in New York Thursday to deal with the weather's effect on flights to and from area airports, including John F. Kennedy International.

"I wanted to be in Boston, wanted to come out to Long Beach and because of the snowstorm I didn't get to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale," said Barger, who was at Long Beach Airport on Friday to celebrate the anniversary with city and airport officials.

It's fitting, really, that a snowstorm would mark the milestone of a company whose first flight - which carried dignitaries from Buffalo, N.Y., - happened during an ice storm.

"If there's a message to other entrepreneurs, don't start an airline in Buffalo in February, because the weather can be kind of tough," he joked. "We were a little bit delayed. ... But I think people realized that, 'Hey listen, this is really special,' and that's what we've seen from day one and we've seen it over the last 10 years."

Barger, 52, has seen the New York-based company wing through its ups and downs - from its rapid rise in 2000 as an innovative air carrier vowing to bring humanity back to air flight to rising fuel prices, an uncertain economy and a 2007 snowstorm that stranded hundreds of passengers at JFK, an event that prompted a company wake-up call and the appointment of Barger as CEO.

Ten years later, Barger - whose 32 years of experience in the airline industry have included New York Air and Continental Airlines - reflected on JetBlue's growth, where the company sees itself in the next decade and its future as the largest commercial customer at Long Beach Airport, JetBlue's West Coast hub.

'Visionary' leader

Barger - whose passion for airlines came from his father, a United Air pilot for 37 years - was part of the team that founded the company 12 years ago with founder David Neeleman, whom Barger called a "visionary."

JetBlue quickly made its impact on the airline industry, offering passengers affordable fares, leather seating and dozens of cable channels.

"We wanted to enhance the comfort for our customers," said Barger, adding that the company over the years removed 12 seats from its airplanes to provide more legroom. "I think you can be profitable without gouging the traveling public."

In August 2001, JetBlue launched its second focus city in Long Beach with two daily flights to JFK, which occurred because of Neeleman's familiarity with the LA Basin, Barger said.

"Long Beach fell into that same kind of camp in terms of great airport, under-utilized, big population catchment and we thought, `hey, this should work,"' he said.

Meanwhile, Barger took over as CEO in 2007 during a controversial time for the company, which had been criticized for stranding passengers on planes snowbound at gates or stuck on runways on Valentine's Day.

The event changed the company and led to the investment in technology and leadership.

"It was tough to look in the mirror February 2007," he said. "We dropped the ball that day, really for that week, but we're a much stronger company as a result of it."

JetBlue, like many companies in the airline industry, faced several challenges in the last decade, from the Sept. 11 attacks to rising fuel prices and an unstable economy.

Barger said JetBlue has managed to weather them by slowing the company's growth. For example, last year JetBlue took delivery of nine airplanes instead of the 36 originally planned.

"We're still a growth story, but I think we just wanted to catch up with some of the growth that we had in the first several years of the company," he said.

This approach has allowed JetBlue to be profit for four straight quarters and deliver positive free cash flow at the end of the year, a first for the company.

"So many airlines think you can hit the reset button - bankruptcy, furlough your staff, pay cuts. We haven't done any of that in 10 years."

Pleased with changes

During his 45-minute visit with the Press-Telegram, Barger addressed some Long Beach issues, including comments he made last year to an industry blogger about JetBlue possibly leaving Long Beach because of terminal improvement delays. The comments sparked concerns among city officials and the community.

Barger preferred to be "forward-looking," especially now that long-awaited improvements to the airport's parking structure and gate hold area are being made.

"The ground experience - it's very important, we believe, to match the air experience," he said "We needed to see investment and we're very pleased that it's taking place."

He also addressed the city's airport noise ordinance, which restricts the number of flights and fines airlines for taking off or landing between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Barger said over 90 percent of the delays into Long Beach have been driven by East Coast air traffic controllers because of weather.

"Time performers is important to this company and our home on the East Coast has the most congested airspace," he said.

To offset that, JetBlue has built more of a buffer between the last scheduled flight and the curfew hour.

Asked about growing in Long Beach, Barger said he will leave that up to residents.

"I think we could. ... Are we going to try to push that and make that happen? No," he said. "We're going to live within history and the ordinance that's been put into place. That's what good citizens do."

(Karen Robes Meeks - Press Telegram)

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