JetBlue, cheap but chic, takes off

Owner Neeleman has helped airline prosper since Sept. 11

April 29, 2002|By S. Mitra Kalita | S. Mitra Kalita,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On the day his company went public, David Neeleman appeared to be everywhere, yet was nowhere to be found.

The chief executive of JetBlue Airways watched its stock price soar in a private room at the Nasdaq building on New York's Times Square. He ventured outside, greeted passers-by and tickled a baby in a stroller. He choked back tears as he thanked his family and the JetBlue crew at a news conference.

In many ways, Neeleman's tendency to flutter about defines his hands-on management style. He regularly loads bags onto conveyor belts, hands passengers their boarding cards. He's a familiar sight on JetBlue flights, passing out chips and sodas to customers.

It's been said that he has attention deficit disorder. While his daughter Ashley, 20, confirms that he identified with a book about the condition called "Driven to Distraction," she says he never finished it.

The man behind the cheap but chic airline is a college dropout, a devout Mormon churchgoer, a father of nine and a former missionary in Brazil. He's also a rich man with his stake in JetBlue valued at almost $150 million. With Neeleman at its helm, JetBlue has not only survived after the attacks of Sept. 11 but thrived.

While other airlines encouraged customers to resume flying, JetBlue decided "people were going to need to fly, but there needed to be a time for grieving," Neeleman said.

In the meantime, JetBlue evaluated security measures, becoming the first airline to install bulletproof cockpit doors.

Despite his newcomer status on Wall Street, Neeleman, 42, is no stranger to the airline industry or entrepreneurship. His grandfather owned a small store in Salt Lake City, dubbing it a "Miniature Market" in the days before convenience stores such as 7-Eleven. When shoppers came in and asked for obscure items, workers would run off to purchase them at a supermarket down the block as the waiting customer munched on a doughnut and sipped coffee.

At Morris Air, the discount carrier he founded in Salt Lake City in the early 1980s, Neeleman created a mechanism to tap into callers awaiting a reservations agent and assure them: "This is David Neeleman, the president of Morris Air. I know you've been on hold for 10 minutes. Just hang on."

In 1993, Morris Air was sold to Southwest Airlines, a carrier whose model of using secondary airports Neeleman copied. Neeleman then helped launch a Canadian airline, WestJet, initiating an electronic ticketing system that was later sold to Hewlett-Packard Co.

By the late 1990s, Neeleman found himself brainstorming ways to combine luxury, humanity and discounts in an airline - and one based in the crowded New York market. His business plan outlined a company called NewAir and drew $130 million in funds. Over a 1998 breakfast with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, Neeleman said, "You could roll a bowling ball down the runways of Kennedy between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m."

Assuring the politician he would fly to underserved upstate markets, Neeleman launched JetBlue from a small office on Park Avenue in the summer of 1999. Today, he oversees a company whose stock rose 66 percent to $45 a share on its first day of trading April 12.

S. Mitra Kalita is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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