JetBlue is getting all-grown up. It now has business class service, the airline will soon roll out a new fare structure and its pilots voted to join a union. The challenge is to ensure that the products and service that built JetBlue's reputation don't get lost in the evolution.
Marty St. George was standing in JFK’s Terminal 5 on Tuesday, wearing a black pinstriped suit, his airport credentials dangling on a lanyard with the words “Red Sox” emblazoned on it, and he was talking to a couple of reporters about what’s obviously his pride and joy, the terminal.
St. George, who became JetBlue’s Executive Vice President Commercial and Planning in February, obviously emitted the aura of being “somebody” of import and a JetBlue passenger who was having some issues, instinctively recognized it.
The woman was having a stressful airport moment as she approached the group of four, including airline spokesperson Doug McGraw, the upbeat St. George and the two journalists. But she focused on St. George, the authority figure in the suit.
“Hablas español?” she asked.
“Un poco,” said St. George, a member of JetBlue’s leadership team who reports to CEO Robin Hayes.
First Things First
St. George was there to brief the two reporters on a few things but he left us and took off with the somewhat-distressed JetBlue passenger following him when it became clear that his “un poco” Spanish just wasn’t going to be adequate.
Five or 10 minutes later St. George reappeared after having found someone to help out the woman, who ambled behind him at a pace that was a helluva lot slower than American Pharoah’s, to say the least. It turns out the passenger hadn’t been able to locate her husband. Problem resolved, apparently.
One of the two journalists quipped that St. George and McGraw must have set the whole thing up. The anxious passenger had to be a ringer. The incident was too good to be true.
They laughed it off.
A JetBlue-Run Terminal
St. George then continued where he left off, extolling the virtues of JFK’s T5, which opened in 2008 with JetBlue as its steward. With its dozens of restaurants, retail outlets, and kiosks, including one selling Amazon Kindle Fire tablets to mark a recent JetBlue-Amazon Fly-Fi partnership, St. George emphasizes that the airline put most of its investment in the terminal into areas that passengers can actually view and appreciate.
He points to the terminal’s roof, which has unadorned and exposed steel beams, resembling a jungle gym, as an example of where JetBlue’s money didn’t go. St. George assures the reporters that despite the ceiling’s Spartan look, it is structurally solid.
Speaking of appearances, St. George could end up much in the spotlight over the next few weeks as JetBlue, according to statements by executives in earnings calls, is expected to roll out its branded fares. These will likely include a fee for the first checked bag for some passengers. Barring changes, JetBlue has stated that the new fare scheme would be rolled out in the second quarter, which ends June 30.
A JetBlue Way?
St. George leads the journalists to one of its new A321 planes, the ones with the new slim-line seats, larger seatback screens with 100 DirecTV free channels and, for flights from JFK to San Francisco and Los Angeles, Mint business class service.
But en route from the retail areas of T5 toward a momentarily idle A321 parked at gate 26, St. George stops several times along the way, including in the gangway, to scoop up litter on the ground. He’s like a shopkeeper ensuring the storefront is tidy or a tailor wiping away lint from a lapel.
Somewhat incredulously, St. George admits he still has never flown in a Mint lie-flat seat because any available seating has been turned over to crew and other staff who need to understand Mint because they work with it.
He’ll fly Mint soon, St. George says.
Maintaining JetBlue Culture in the Next Growth Phase
Whether it’s Mint or the branded fares, the details of which the airline has been extremely coy about publicly, JetBlue wants to do things “the JetBlue way,” St. George says.
On A321 flights with Mint service, for example, passengers get the souped up seatback screens, speedy Fly-Fi, and a marketplace that separates Mint from Even More seats and coach with free snacks. The latter is “core” seating in JetBlue marketing parlance.
Actually, St. George says, the marketplace is just making more prominent a service that JetBlue has had anyway over the last few years: The flight attendants left free snacks for the taking in the galley. Although some passengers, he says, might not have felt comfortable grabbing the freebie chips and sodas.
There likely will be perks that passengers will find attractive in the new branded fares, even if some may not appreciate JetBlue’s break from the free first-checked bag.
St. George doesn’t expect a major backlash as carriers around the world are turning to branded fare categories, which has airlines bundling various products and services into different fare types, and JetBlue will be spinning the changes as adding more customer choice and flexibility.
He’s confident that in tandem with the changes passengers will appreciate “the JetBlue way,” always trying to do something different than the pack, and features geared to satisfy “the core,” i.e. passengers in cheap seats.
St. George boasts that no other carrier at this juncture can offer the advertising sponsorship model for offering passengers free Wi-Fi (or Fly-Fi, as JetBlue calls its product) because other airlines’ systems can’t handle the speed and capacity of Fly-Fi. He says on some flights there are more devices signed into Fly-Fi than there are seats on the plane.
Getting More Profitable
As a more mature JetBlue grows up and tries to satisfy shareholders with its increased monetization efforts, St. George argues that JetBlue will stay true to its culture.
Part of that culture is embodied in the new lodging property that the airline opened in Orlando in March.
New employees, whether they are cleaning staff or C-suite types, go through orientation together. After the sessions they used to disperse to numerous hotels in Orlando but now they stay together in the new facility, St. George says.
Maintaining that culture is all-important, St. George argues. The alternative is ending up with the type of subpar customer service that rules the day at an airline that St. George used to work for.
JetBlue’s purported esprit de corps is embodied in an executive, St. George, who picks up discarded candy wrappers and paper from the floor of T5 as he walks toward a gate to show off an A321.
The next few weeks will be big ones for St. George and JetBlue as the airline unveils its new fare lineup, including bag fees.
St. George expresses confidence about the rollout and doesn’t expect to have to clean up a big mess.
Although it will be JetBlue’s customers who ultimately decide the issue.
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Photo credit: Marty St. George, JetBlue's executive vice president commercial and planning. Chelsea Brodsky / JetBlue Airways