Exclusive: JetBlue’s Lofty Mission to Bring “Humanity Back to Air Travel”

JetBlue Airlines, which in the last year opened a bilingual call center in Orlando, Florida and significantly expanded its service to the Caribbean and South America, has experienced impressive …

Joanna Geraghty, Vice President of JetBlue says customers know what the airliner made them feel.

JetBlue Airlines, which in the last year opened a bilingual call center in Orlando, Florida and significantly expanded its service to the Caribbean and South America, has experienced impressive growth in its 15-year existence. Founded in 1999, it has grown from a regional carrier into the fifth largest domestic carrier and has won J.D. Power and Associates’ highest honors in the low-cost carrier segment of their North America Airline Satisfaction Study for ten years straight.

JetBlue recently named Joanna Geraghty, a former litigation partner at Holland & Knight who joined the airline in March 2005, as Executive Vice President of Customer Experience. Geraghty was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule for an in-depth conversation about JetBlue’s ability to deliver a high level of customer service at a low price point, its rapid but organic growth, and the changes to JetBlue’s mission.

NSAM: For 10 years straight you guys at Jet Blue have won accolades from JD Powers for passenger experience but you’re still considered by some of the industry to be a low-cost carrier. How are you able to simultaneously compete on value and service?

Geraghty: When JetBlue was founded in 1998, we were originally called “NewAir.” The mission was to bring humanity back to air travel. And if you think back to kind of a pre-9/11 kind of world, it was similar I think to what we’re experiencing today in that the level of service that you would typically see on an airline was, you know, half a can of Coke, a bag of peanuts, a dirty blanket, and a pillow that had been used by customers on 10 flights before. And so the bar was pretty low when JetBlue was founded. Our vision was to bring humanity back to air travel, and frankly you didn’t need to do very much back then to do that.

So we feel like over the last decade we’ve actually accomplished that mission. Now our mission is … not just limited to the air travel experience, but really the entire travel experience. And indeed if you think about how influential and how significant the airline industry is to gross domestic product and to how you make people feel when they’re traveling for a wedding, a funeral, a sick child, a graduationpeople are moving across here for all different reasons, and we have the opportunity every day to put a smile on that customer’s face, to make that experience seamless and smooth and hassle-free and special.

So our mission now is, how do we inspire humanity more broadly? Whether it’s in the community, with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics education, and supporting programs that get people excited about working in the airline industry; whether you’re a mechanic or a pilot or a flight attendant. Whether it’s building playgrounds for children, because we know so many of those children may be JetBlue customers. Whether it’s about creating a hero moment for customers who are traveling for unique reasons. So, our mission now is bigger, it’s broader, it’s very lofty, and we use that as a guiding principle in terms of how we make decisions.

So when we look at cost and revenue, and investments, we balance those and look at them through the lens of what’s smart for the business, but often times what’s smart for the customer and the crew members is also smart for the business. So if we keep in mind our goal to inspire humanity and use that as a decision making tool, it’s amazing the things that rise to the surface as important and the things that may seem interesting (and maybe are a cost-saver) but ultimately would have a very negative impact to the customers. So it’s really a tool that you can use in decision-making, and it’s something that we think, if we continue to be religious about our mission, to inspire humanity, it will make the choices that we make in terms of what we do for our crew members and our customers and our shareholders the right choices for JetBlue.

We’re in this for the long haul. We’re not a short term play. We’ve been around for 15 years, we intend to be around for another fifty years, if not longer … We’re also small; we’re more agile. We ask more from our crewmembers every day. Our technicians are some of the hardest working in the industry. Our in-flight crew are some of the hardest working in the industry. But it’s not just the hours they put in; it’s that discretionary effort that we ask of them. They work in a really challenging environment. The airline industry is really hard. Their goal is to make that hard industry softer and more special for customers, and that requires effort. It requires them to be special and unique and different and caring and all of that.

NSAM: Even though you’re smaller, JetBlue in less than two decades has become, I think, the fifth largest U.S. carrier in terms of passengers. I don’t recall any major acquisitions, so to really grow organically like that has been pretty impressive.

Geraghty: If I can just touch on the comment you made about sort of being a large airline, we’re big, relatively speaking, compared to the entire airline industry. But among major carriers we’re actually quite small. We’re a 5% player in the land where Delta’s at I think 20%, United is hovering around there, and American is as well. So, they’re significantly bigger than we are. However, one of our core business decisions has been that we are all about organic growth. JetBlue could double in size tomorrow if we were interested in acquiring another airline, but with acquisition comes complexity and cultural challenges in terms of how you integrate different value systems and different cultures. We feel that we’ve been very deliberate in our decision to stay organic and to make sure that as we grow, we’re hiring the right people, that we’re scaling our culture. I think JetBlue has been very fortunate to grow slower and more incrementally (albeit quite rapidly) than we could if we went the inorganic path [of acquisitions].

NSAM: Your True Blue program awards points based on dollars spent rather than miles traveled, and the points never expire. The hotels seemed to have done that a long time ago. You probably saw that study by Deloitte that said loyalty programs are only the 18th most important attribute when people evaluate how they feel about an airline. How does True Blue fit into your customer engagement strategy?

Geraghty: Some companies talk in terms of customer satisfaction; we talk in terms of customer loyalty. It’s the repeat customers. As you’ve noted we’ve revamped our loyalty program to provide quite a bit of flexibility. Points don’t expire, we now provide family pooling so you can move points across family members, all those are tools to really reward and incentivize the customers that have flown on JetBlue to come back again, and try us again and again and again. We know for the vast majority of customers that try JetBlue once, they’re going to come back because it’s just a better experience. So getting that trial is so important to us and the loyalty program is absolutely part of that.

We want our program to be meaningful. You fly on a network carrier and you can have lots of points, you could be considered Bronze or Silver or Gold and it doesn’t get you anything other than a special name and a special title. With JetBlue, we’ve created the Mosaic category, but we’re being very carefulto my point earlier about learning from lessons of the past, we’re being really careful to make sure that we don’t create these multiple tiers where you have a certain category with no value. So our loyalty programwe think there’s tremendous upsidea lot more opportunities to roll out future enhancements to it. We sort of have just scratched the surface with what we’d like to do, and I get that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so when you see other airlines doing what we’re doing, you kind of have to embrace it because they’re taking a page from our playbook.

But again, the loyalty program’s one piece, the seats are one piece, the TVs are a piece, they all kind of roll up into the overall experience, and at the end of the day, we know our people are simply fantastic. And our people are what customers write about! You don’t typically see a compliment letter that talks about how comfortable the seat was, but you do get a lot of compliment letters that speak to how an in-flight crew member or an airport crew member or a customer support crew member made that customer feel. So you might forget the seat, you might forget the TV; I think Maya Angelou has a quote along the lines of: “People don’t remember what you said or what you did, but they remembered how you made them feel.” And at JetBlue, our crew members know that customers remember how we made them feel. That’s the differentiator for us.

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NSAM: I would imagine you have insights on the habits of your travelers and what might differentiate them. Is there a different profile for a JetBlue business traveler or a JetBlue leisure traveler as compared to say maybe a typical industry-wide traveler? Or does the JetBlue experience attract a different traveler profile?

Geraghty: No, it’s actually a great question. We specifically target customers who appreciate that with a JetBlue seat, you get a little more for your money. So, if you want the $9 fare, [of some ultra low-cost competitors] and you have to pay for everything—including a carry-on bag, including a checked bag, including a drink, that’s not the JetBlue customer. Our customers appreciate that we have high touch service, they appreciate that included within your ticket price is a free carryon bag, a free first checked bag, unlimited snacks, free television, and free soft drinks. And so, we know if a customer’s looking for a $9 fare and they’re willing to not have any of those things, that’s not who we target. We also know that if you’re platinum at a legacy carrier, and you’re one of the few that gets upgraded, that we’re probably not targeting you either. We do know that the JetBlue product, both in terms of the hard product: the seats and the TVs and the snacks and all that, and the soft product in terms of the level of service that we give, is highly attractive to business customers. So our Boston strategy is very much focused on increasing our business presence there. And we in fact have the largest carry out of Boston with a very strong business market. And then it’s also very much about our leisure customers. But what works for a leisure customer going to Orlando also works for the business customer going to Pittsburgh.

NSAM: Finally, what’s next? How do you plan to leave your mark on this position to not just continue to stay aloft, but really to take the customer experience that JetBlue provides to a new altitude?

Geraghty: So we know our customers want a hassle-free, special travel relationship. Travel’s stressful so the big challenge to me is, how do we take the stress and the hassle out of it? How do we make for the smoothest and the most seamless customer experience? How do we take some of the complexity out of it so that as we remove complexity we can add back in even more exceptional customer service? How do we create special moments for our customers? How do we make sure our airport and our in-flight crewmembers are using our customers’ names? How do we make sure that as you see a customer coming in the front door with a stroller and three kids hanging on her that our airport’s crewmember is proactively walking over and asking her how they can help in getting her to a special line to make it a better experience for her? Because lord knows, when you’re traveling with kids it’s stressful! Likewise for our customers with disabilities: How do we make sure that our customers with disabilities feel that they’re treated respectfully and exceptionally on JetBlue?

My goal is to find the complexity that we have, simplify, and then hopefully free up time for our crewmembers across the system to continue to perform activities that add lots of value to our customers. Whether it’s creating the special moment for a customer who’s on their honeymoon, or making sure that we take care of that mom with the stroller and three kids hanging on her and one’s crying because they’re nursing, we think this can be done. We know it can be done through a better process, better technology, and also better and stronger relationships with our key partners, whether that’s TSA at the checkpoint, or our business partners who are pushing wheelchairs, or our business partners in our international cities. Simplify, make things less complex, increase the high touch points for our customers during the travel experience, and find those special moments that we can truly make a difference. And then we have a fantastic team out in Salt Lake City and down in Orlando because listen—this is a dynamic industry and there are some days that things will just not go right. So when they don’t go right, how do we make it right? For the recovery side of the house – how do we make sure that when things go bump in the night we have a team that is focused on recovering that customer and winning their trust back?

This article originally appeared on Nearshore Americas’ sister site, Customer Experience Report.

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