With JetBlue, cruising into an expanding horizon

(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

David Barger
CEO, JetBlue Airways

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of JetBlue Airways, chief executive David Barger is visiting each city the airline serves — a number that rises to 61 when the airline starts flying to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, from New York and Boston this month. Barger was at Logan International Airport recently, where JetBlue has recently become the dominant carrier, to share cake with the employees and talk about the airline’s rise — and its plantain chips — with Globe reporter Katie Johnston Chase.

You’ve been with JetBlue since the beginning. What did the airline look like 10 years ago?
Back then, it was probably 350 crew members, two airplanes, and we were flying to three cities. First it was New York and Fort Lauderdale and then Buffalo 10 days later. . . . And today, I fast forward to 151 airplanes and 60 locations, or blue cities, as we call them. We carried 22-plus million customers last year. 12,000 crew members — our word for employees . . . And now we’re the seventh-largest airline in the country.

What’s the ultimate goal? Do you want to be the number one carrier in the country?
Not necessarily. . . . I think building relevance in Boston, building relevance in New York, building relevance in the Dominican Republic. That’s really our goal.

With JetBlue’s rapid expansion, do you worry about growing pains?
Definitely. Because your scale is just that much larger. And we were growing too fast. In fact, 2006-07, we slowed things down at the end of ‘07 into ‘08 and ‘09. And we’re still growing the airline. We took nine airplanes last year. We’re committed to four airplanes this year.

JetBlue is the top carrier at Logan in regard to passengers, departures, and nonstop cities served, and you’re expanding a lot in Boston this year. What other markets are you expanding in?
We opened, actually, I guess it would be eight cities last year. And the bulk of them were down in the Caribbean and Latin America. We’re now in South America and we’re in Central America as a result of activity last year. This year the only expansion that we’ve announced has been the Dominican Republic. . . . I imagine we’ll announce another city or two before we close the year. But I think what is truly the bulk of our flying, or our growth, that’s taking place is right here [in Boston].

You talk about being JetGreen, being an environmentally friendly air carrier. How is that possible?
When oil was $180, I remember flying to Richmond one night. . . . We played a little contest. And we asked people how much fuel we were going to burn, how many gallons we were going to burn between New York and Richmond on an Embraer 190, a new jet. And when we shared with them it was going to take eight gallons per seat, to move those customers almost 300 miles, people were like, ‘you have to be kidding me.’ We have to educate people.

How did you manage to make a profit last year?
I think most importantly people started to see as they were traveling the value proposition on JetBlue. As people were raising their fares when oil was running, or I’m going to nickel and dime you and charge you for everything, I mean everything. You want a better seat assignment, by the way, in a row that’s not comfortable, charge you for your first bag. You want a cup of coffee, water?

You’re charging people for more leg room.
An enhanced experience, right? Again the [Airbus] 320 at 34 inches of pitch. So if you will, the worst seat on JetBlue is better than anything on those guys, you know, in terms of the coach cabin. Because again they tend to live in front of the curtain at the expense of everybody who’s behind the curtain.

What’s the Wi-Fi situation?
We’ve got an application we’re really excited about in terms of bringing in Wi-Fi into the whole airplane. But across the fleet, it will probably take a couple years to do it — and most likely without charging you. And here’s the difference, because there’s lot of airplanes with Wi-Fi today, but are you willing to swipe for like $9.95?

You used to work for Continental Airlines. How is working for JetBlue different?
I think what’s so neat about JetBlue is it’s a clean sheet of paper. And it’s the most well-funded clean sheet of paper ever. So we don’t take that for granted, but it was nice to have that cash to start the company in the way that we wanted to. And that’s what really led to the new airplanes and things like live TV, because it was started with lots of cash.

Whose cash?
Venture capital. In fact, the lead venture capital firm, our founding chair, Weston Presidio, right here in Boston. . . . Our first board meeting that I as at . . . was right here at the Hyatt at the airport, sometime in 1998.

I find that JetBlue’s fares are often similar to legacy carriers’. Do you consider JetBlue to be a low-cost carrier?
I think a right-cost carrier is the term that I would use, because, again, at JetBlue the value that you get . . . it’s a new airplane, it’s a comfortable seat, it’s 140 channels of entertainment. You want 10 bags of plantains, have at it.

How did you get into the airline industry?
Dad was a pilot — 37 years with United Airlines.

Do you always fly JetBlue?
Not always. Home for me originally is Detroit. We don’t fly there. Yet.