David Neeleman On the Spot

In the nearly four years since JetBlue’s first flight, the unconventional low-fare airline has become a textbook example of how to build a brand. CEO Neeleman, 44, has made the New York-based company’s reputation not via advertising—although The Ad Store’s commercials are standout in the category—but on the word of impressed flyers. Neeleman, a devout Mormon, has pushed one message from booking to deplaning: The customer is king. Q. JetBlue just posted its 11th consecutive quarter of profitability. This year you were a repeat winner of Condé Nast Traveler’s Best Domestic Airline award. What is driving your success?

A. We figured out a way with our brand and with our people to build a better mousetrap. People really love flying this airline, and we’ve been able to elevate it above a commodity business. For most other airlines, it’s all about fare. We have what we think is the best product in the industry, and we have the lowest costs in the industry, so we have very low fares. It’s an unbeatable combination.

What is the best way to tell consumers your story?

We have this consistent message from the time you pick up the phone to the time you pick up your bags at the carousel. Our new business comes to us from word-of-mouth. When we first built this airline, we wanted to build a company with a great brand. We knew that it wasn’t an ad agency that could build our brand. They can bring them to us, but we’re going to bring them back. They’ll come back because they really like the experience. Some of these other airlines are coming up with all these crazy things—you’ve got to wonder about the Songs of the world. I think they just sat in a room one day and threw everything they could think of on a board, and then tried to implement it. They talked about all this stuff, but when people went and experienced it, it wasn’t all there. We like to delight our customers. We don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.

How many agencies do you hear from each month that want your account ?

When we made the decision to leave Arnold [in August 2001], there was a herd. It was amazing. [Vice president of marketing] Amy Curtis-McIntyre’s office was just filled with stuff. It was kind of fun to hang out there and see all the gizmos and gadgets.

What other branding efforts do you admire?

Starbucks has a great look. There’s a lot of great, clean brands out there. We’re just trying to be a little classy about what we do.

What’s the most difficult thing about building a brand?

Anyone can come up with an ad campaign. Anyone can come up with a great logo. Once you set the customer’s expectations, you better deliver on it. That’s what we excel at.

You’re admired as an entrepreneur and an innovator. How would you describe yourself?

I have attention deficit disorder, which inhibits me in a lot of different ways but helps me see through the clutter and get to the heart of what’s important to our business. I invented ticketless travel and came up with the whole idea of in-flight entertainment and in-home reservationists. And I’ve been smart enough to hire really good people who can implement all these ideas.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

Without a doubt, Herb Kelleher [co-founder of Southwest Airlines, which bought Neeleman’s first airline venture, Morris Air, in 1994]. He’s created a great airline. The greatest compliment I’ve ever heard of JetBlue is that it’s Southwest Airlines, new and improved.

If you were to start a company besides an airline, what would it be?

I’d love to figure out how to make the train service better and faster. I love transportation. It’s the science of moving people. I’ve always done this, ever since I was in college, so it’s hard for me to think of anything else.

Who would you most love to spend a few hours with?

Without sounding too religious, because it’s kind of out of vogue, I would love to have a couple-hour conversation with Christ.

Free Internet access in the terminals, free in-flight satellite TV—what’s next?

I believe a company continually needs to evolve and reinvent itself. We’re not resting on our laurels because we have what we believe is the best airline. We’ve got a few cool things we’re going to be adding early in the year, which we will be announcing in January, so stay tuned.

What advice would you give someone who’s about to launch a company?

Make sure you have enough capital and, obviously, watch your costs. Most important, if it’s a service-related business, you can be the best at what you do. It takes a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t take a lot of thought to be better than a lot of companies that exist today. We’ve done it in a very tough environment in a very tough industry. It’s all about the people. Take care of your employees first, and they’ll take care of the customers.

What’s your biggest fear?

That we’ll become ordinary. We have mechanisms in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have great leadership and great leadership training. We’ve got to scale this thing to be a lot bigger than it is today. I think we’re ready for the fight.