Lessons learned from JetBlue
The mood at Azul's Tuesday management meeting makes it feel more like a Silicon Valley startup than an airline. The young, multicultural executives (all but one are men) shift easily between English and Portuguese as they compare notes. All agree that the first six weeks have been good - Azul sold $7.5 million in tickets and flew 56,000 passengers between five cities. The plan now is to add a raft of new flights, including five daily from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro (the "filet mignon of Brazilian air travel," as Neeleman calls it). But Rio's governor, Srgio Cabral, is refusing to open Rio's desirable downtown Santos Dumont airport to Azul, and the airline has filed a lawsuit against Brazil's aviation regulator, Agncia Nacional de Aviaço Civil. Meanwhile, Azul is using the more distant Galeo International Airport. "We need to add a big city to our network," says marketing director Gianfranco Beting.
Finance director Rodgerson argues that it's overkill to have five daily flights between Azul's hub in Campinas - 55 miles northwest of Sao Paulo - and Rio's secondary airport. Neeleman steps in. "We've got to be in Rio," he says crisply. "There are 8 million people there. That's just how it is."
If there's a recurring criticism of Neeleman, it's his penchant for details - some would call it micromanagement. But it was his involvement in every aspect of JetBlue - from route choices to call-center wait times - that made it a success.
"He gets what the customer wants in a way that's almost uncanny," says Todd Thompson, a former JetBlue CIO who worked with Neeleman for three years. "He's very interested in operations, almost too much so. I think David wants to keep his hands on the controls much longer than he probably can as the company grows."
But Tim Claydon, who worked for six years as head of sales and marketing at JetBlue and regularly speaks with Neeleman, argues that his former boss has learned from his past mistakes.
"David loves to design solutions," Claydon says. "I think he became frustrated by some of the complications that came with growth at JetBlue. David has learned to deal with the less sexy aspects of the business."
Today Neeleman is doing just that, stopping at Azul's call center to quiz the employees about customer feedback. Speaking to a class of call center trainees, he talks about meeting a woman on an Azul flight who'd never flown before - his ideal customer. After arriving in the executive offices, he sticks his head into a workroom and gently reminds his executives to speak to the call center people more. "We should go over there once a week and talk to 10 agents," he tells them. "We think we know what happens. But they really know."
For all his exuberance, Neeleman seems to understand his limitations. This time around he's acting more like a chairman than a CEO. And he plans to cede more operational control to his management team than he did at JetBlue. "I'm here to get things going and start making money," he says.
He's also made sure that he has complete voting control over executive decisions. "At least I'm not going to get sucker punched like last time," he says, sitting in his tiny office, which is undecorated save for a map of Brazil. "If someone has a problem, he'll talk to me, not about me when I'm not around."
But for all his tough talk, Neeleman wears his heart on his sleeve. Behind him his laptop radiates blue light into the room. The screen shows a plane flying past New York.