Fun, freedom to lure fliers

SUN JOURNAL

Airline: Budget-minded JetBlue Airways offers free satellite TV, take-home headsets, and an extra stairway in back for passengers.

January 24, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Passengers on JetBlue Airways get an odd gift at the end of each flight: the flimsy but efficient enough headphones they used on the trip.

Flight attendants call the stereo headsets a "souvenir." A company representative (OK, a flight attendant) explains that discarding headphones after a single use and buying new ones is cheaper than cleaning the blue foam earpieces.

Cutting costs and thinking outside the box are what JetBlue wants to be all about. It's been called the most successful airline start-up in a generation. But that was before the travel business ran into tough times after last fall's terror attacks.

Among the strugglers is America West, which claimed to be the most successful new carrier of the deregulation era. (It began flying in 1983.) After Sept. 11, the company warned it might face bankruptcy. It is now being propped up by hundreds of millions in loan guarantees approved as part of the federal airline bailout.

JetBlue, which used to boast about its profitability, isn't saying whether it is making money now. In an interview, founder and CEO David Neeleman would say only that he's happy with the discount airline's finances.

He confirms that the privately held firm has postponed plans to go public but adds that it is continuing to grow. It expects to fly more than 5 million passengers this year, up sharply from 2001, he says.

`The JetBlue Experience'

JetBlue's best-known marketing gimmick is free satellite TV at each leather-covered seat. But there are other innovations. Upon arrival at some airports, the cabin's rear door is opened and a stairway is extended so fliers can exit that way instead of waiting to file out the front. It's a common-sense step other airlines haven't taken.

The company's ads imply that it is bringing back the days when flying seemed fun. "The JetBlue experience," they call it.

For most fliers, air travel lost its innocence long before Sept. 11. Cramped and crowded planes, and fewer in-flight meals, make it a safe bet that getting there won't be half the fun.

Now simply waiting to take off has become grim. Camou-clad soldiers tote automatic rifles in airport concourses. Passing through security means removing boots or oversized shoes, which are screened for explosives.

Neeleman, who talks about bringing "humanity" back to flying, contrasts the regimentation of modern air travel with the freedom Americans enjoy in their daily lives.

"When you get on an airplane, there's very little you can do on your own. You're a captive," he says. Passengers are ordered into the cabin, told where to sit and kept from leaving their seats without permission from the crew.

Neeleman says his company has restored a measure of freedom by putting a TV set at each seat with up to 24 free channels of live satellite programming on it. Passengers use a remote control built into the armrest to choose what they want to watch.

For already overstimulated fliers who prize airplanes as havens for thinking or reading, a color TV screen a few inches from their noses may not be a welcome advance. (Passengers aren't told they can turn off the screens, which flash ads for JetBlue and other companies.)

Parents, however, are delighted to have cartoons, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Discovery Kids to divert their children. Sports fans can watch four ESPN channels. There are movies on A&E and news on CNN. The flight's progress can be pinpointed on a closed-circuit map that refreshes every minute with the plane's speed, heading, altitude and location.

Investors can follow stock prices on three live business channels. But they can't call their broker. In-flight phones, standard on many aircraft, aren't on JetBlue. "They are not used," Neeleman says.

The unpredictability of live TV would seem to pose a big risk for a business that wants its customers to feel safe. No sooner had a recent JetBlue flight taken off than the words "PLANE CRASH" flashed on Headline News. (It turned out to be a military jet; no one was injured.)

Security measures

To reassure fliers, JetBlue boasts that it was the first U.S. airline to install bulletproof Kevlar cockpit doors on every plane. It also put in security cameras that let pilots monitor the cabin.

On Sept. 11, JetBlue fliers watched in horror as news broke of the attacks on New York and Washington. Feedback from those in the air that day was overwhelmingly positive, officials say.

"They felt connected. They understood what was happening. They could see it as it played out," says Fiona Morrisson, a company spokeswoman. Neeleman, whose father worked for United Press International, says he decided early on not to censor the live TV, a policy that remains intact.

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