Nothing blue about this airline

Nothing blue about this airline

Imagine. An airline people actually like to fly. A low-fare carrier that provides friendly service as well as such amenities as leather seats, live TV, XM radio and unlimited snacks. That’s JetBlue. JetBlue also makes money. That alone makes it an anomaly in the dismal airline business.

Those friendly flight attendants, ticket-takers, reservations agents, grounds personnel and pilots (at least a couple who I met) are, as it happens, the key to the success of JetBlue. That was my takeaway after spending some time with the company and its people for a story about JetBlue and its CEO, Dave Barger, that I wrote in the current issue of FORTUNE. It’s part of my year-long series for the magazine on FORTUNE 500 companies.

Here’s how it begins:

Welcome aboard,” says the CEO of JetBlue Airways. “I’m Dave. It’s a first-name-basis airline. My door is open.”

It’s a steamy Florida morning, and Dave Barger, a 51-year-old airline-industry lifer, is addressing a new class of about 160 students at JetBlue University, the airline’s training center next to Orlando’s airport.

In a few days, after a brief history of the airline (it was originally going to be called Taxi), a thorough immersion in its core values (safety, integrity, caring, passion, and fun), a sobering analysis of industry economics (including the meaning of VFR, CASM, and BELF), and mundane sessions on uniforms and employee benefits, these new crew members will go to work as ticket takers, baggage handlers, and ground crew at some of the 56 airports served by JetBlue (JBLU).

The scene tells you a few noteworthy things about JetBlue. The first is that the airline is growing, even in these rough times. While revenues are down slightly ($1.4 billion in 2009’s first half), this year JetBlue will add nine new planes, expand into eight new cities, and hire about 2,300 new people.

You can keep reading here. By coincidence, the CEOS of the first three companies in our FORTUNE 500 series—engineering firm CH2MHill, hotel giant Marriott and JetBlue—all told me that their company culture is key to their success.

This shouldn’t be surprising. A relatively small number of companies thrive because they make world-changing products. Like millions of consumers, I take Lipitor, I love my iPhone and I regularly enjoy Frappuccino, which helps explain the success of Pfizer, Apple and Starbucks. But most companies sell commodities. Air travel. Hotel rooms. To a degree, engineering and project management services. These are at heart people business, as are investment banks, media companies, law and accounting firms and much of the rest of the economy. Those that attract and engage the best people will win. Which is why culture matters so much. The best people will flock to companies that invest and believe in them and treat them well.

I hate to generalize but as a frequent traveler it’s easy to tell the well-run airlines from the rest. A JetBlue or Southwest flight feels different from a trip on Delta, United or U.S. Air. The people are more energetic. They seem like they want to be there. They actually smile. Amazing what a different a smile can make when you are on your own on the road. This is part of the Marriott secret sauce, too. Treat your people well and they’re treat your customers well.

More than that, in a pinch, they will work a bit harder to turn a plane around, make sure the baggage isn’t lost, get to work on time, save the company money if they spot waste and so forth.

How does JetBlue attract and engage its people? Partly because they are on a mission–the company says it wants to reinvent air travel, to make it enjoyable again. The company hires for attitude, as well as aptitude, seeking out people who are outgoing and caring. It pays fair wages and provides good benefits. Top managers are straightforward, decent and open. (I went to a training session for new employees in Orlando where they were shown how to analyze an earnings report and learned about the economics of the business. That matters because nearly all of them will eventually own shares in JetBlue.) CEO Barger is modest, low-key and a good listener.  His kid brother Mike, the airline’s first pilot and now its chief learning officer, is a hoot. They’re both fun to be around. The airline thinks about how to improve, preserve and transmit its culture. While I was working on my story, plans were afoot for a big softball tournament in Orlando.

When I flew down to Orlando with Dave Barger, he spent half the flight talking with the pilot, because he wanted to learn more about why some pilots tried unsuccessfully to organize a union earlier this year. Before we boarded, he put on an orange vest and went out to schmooze with the grounds crew loading the luggage on the plane. Same thing, when we landed. He also stood at the exit to the plane and personally thanked every passenger for flying JetBlue.

Business isn’t that complicated. I wonder why more companies don’t get it right.


Marc Gunther is a veteran journalist, speaker, writer and consultant whose focus is business and sustainability