Across the Aisle from JetBlue CEO Dave Barger Part 1: Keeping the Product Fresh and Long Beach Troubles

While I was at the Phoenix Symposium last week, I had the chance to sit with Dave Barger, CEO of JetBlue to talk shop. I had planned to chat mostly about the airline’s plans to keep the product fresh, but after I mentioned I lived in Long Beach, Dave became quite vocal about the status of things around here. It appears that there’s trouble in paradise, and leaving the airport entirely is not out of the question.

We did get to the product discussion after that, and as you’ll see tomorrow in Part 2, we also talked about the state of wi-fi onboard, some serious upcoming changes to TrueBlue, the airline’s frequent flier program, and some brand new international partnerships on the way. But enough of that. Let’s get to the interview.

Cranky: It’s good to see you again Dave. I always pay particularly close attention to you guys since I live under the usual departure path out of Long Beach. I’m also probably the only guy in my neighborhood who would like to see more flights out of the airport. So, I certainly watch what happens with you and the airport in general very closely. But let’s get to my first question. Many people describe Virgin America as being the “cool” airline, and that’s something that used to be used to describe your brand. What are you guys doing to take back that title?

Dave: Let’s talk about Long Beach for a second. It has been a huge frustration for us. They need to make good on their commitment to improve the airport experience. The City of Long Beach couldn’t have a more committed partner than JetBlue, but it’s been difficult.

Cranky: So what exactly is the problem? Is it that you can’t use your E-190s in the commuter slots?

Dave: We would like to be able to use our E-190s in those commuter slots. That’s the perfect use of those slots, because these aircraft are very quiet. But the best example is that it took us 30 months to build a brand new terminal at JFK but we’re still stuck in temporary trailers in Long Beach. I don’t think communities always realize what an economic tool an airport is. You can’t take commercial air service for granted.

Cranky: How much of an issue is this? Would you consider leaving the airport?

Dave: Well, LAX is part of our LA Basin strategy, but it becomes a necessary part because of the lack of partnership with the City of Long Beach. People might have to go to LAX to use us, because we’re actually wanted there.

Cranky: So you would leave Long Beach?

Dave: I wouldn’t take any option off the table. Municipalities must make good on their commitments. That includes parking, terminals, baggage claim and every other part of the experience. The message I would give is that especially in a recession, you shouldn’t take air service for granted.

Dave: Now, to get back to your question about the product, we want to keep refreshing it. We’ve won the JD Power award 4 years in a row, and we have our Strive for Five program now, but we want to keep improving.

Cranky: What does that mean in practice? What can customers expect to see?

Dave: The question is not “how do you create a club atmosphere when people get on the plane?” We’re not talking about mood-lighting or cool-colored seats. We don’t think you have to order from your seatback. Our focus in on the whole cabin as opposed to just First Class, not just the 8 seats up front. It’s LiveTV, it’s XM Radio, but it’s building the brand for the long term.

Looking back, I wish I would have pressed a little more on this subject, but time was short, and I had a lot to discuss. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have Part 2 with his thoughts on inflight wi-fi, changes to the TrueBlue program, and new international partnership opportunities.

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