After Joanna Geraghty became the second-highest ranking executive at JetBlue Airways in May, she monitored how others responded.
“I started keeping notes on people’s reaction when I tell them I’m president and chief operating officer because in some cases I think it’s very unique,” she said. “It’s definitely a reaction that might be different than if I were a man.”
Most responses are positive, she said, especially from JetBlue’s crew members, men and women, who often say they’ve shared the news with their daughters. Geraghty hadn’t prepared for others to treat her as a trailblazer, but that’s what happens in an industry in which women occupy so few few top roles she’s sometimes the only woman in meetings.
“I didn’t realize necessarily what this move would do in terms of connecting with a future generation of women that want to go into the industry,” she said. “I didn’t think it was that big a deal when I stepped into the role because I am somebody who believes gender shouldn’t make a difference in these positions.”
Geraghty is believed to be the first female president at a larger U.S. airline since Colleen Barrett at Southwest Airlines from 2001 to 2008. Former Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey is chairman of United Airlines, but it is a non-executive role and she is not running the company, day-to-day.
Elsewhere, the situation is similar. Among the world’s top 100 airlines, just two — VietJet Air and Air Europa — have female CEOs, according to analysis earlier this month from trade magazine Flight Global. The most high-profile female CEO in recent years, EasyJet’s Carolyn McCall, left late last year to run the British media company, ITV.
And while many men running major airlines say they’re committed to gender equality, a few, including Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, aren’t so sure. In June, he told reporters Qatar Airways could only be led by a man, and while the remark caused controversy, Al Baker remains chairman of the IATA’s Board of Governors, the global airline lobbying group.
“It is very clear that there there are fewer women than there should be,” said Samuel Engel, vice president and aviation practice leader at ICF, a consultancy. “It has been fixed in other industries. But you have to want to fix it.”
Geraghty, who joined JetBlue 13 years ago, didn’t take the usual path to the top.
Generally, senior leaders have a revenue or operational background, and often they’ve worked for airlines since their 20s. But Geraghty, was a late-comer, joining JetBlue after almost a decade at two major law firms, handling aviation litigation and other cases.
She joined JetBlue in 2005 as a mid-level attorney, then worked her way up through the legal department and later led the company’s human resources team. In 2014, she switched to head JetBlue’s customer experience division, a key job at an airline that takes passenger happiness more seriously than most low-cost-carriers.
As executive vice president for customer experience, she was in charge of 15,000 employees, she said, including flight attendants and reservations agents. One of her priorities was consistency, ensuring customers received similar service, whether on the phone, at the airport, or on the aircraft.
In that job, she became a trusted confidant of CEO Robin Hayes.
“What really impresses me about Joanna is her focus on execution,” Hayes said. “She has demonstrated in her time running customer experience that she can get things done.”
While she lacks the resume of most airline COOs, Hayes said Geraghty has what it takes to run North America’s seventh-largest airline. He said he is not concerned Geraghty doesn’t have the hefty resume of her predecessor as operations chief, Jeff Martin, an Air Force veteran and former Southwest Airlines pilot with deep technical knowledge and decades of operational experience.
Martin was not, however, JetBlue’s president, and he had a more narrow focus than Geraghty, who not only heads operations, but also leads the carrier’s network, brand and marketing and revenue management divisions.
It’s a role Hayes held until recently. He was named JetBlue’s president in early 2014, and kept the title when he was became CEO a year later. He now focuses more on the airline’s long-term strategy, trusting Geraghty to keep the airline running.
“When you recruit a team, you’ve got to hire people who are good at the things that you’re not too good at,” Hayes said. “And I think Joanna and I are a very strong combination in that she has got distinct strengths to complement mine.”
This includes fashion, Hayes joked.
Hayes laughed while explaining Geraghty once came into his office and told him he didn’t look like a chief executive, sartorially speaking.
“She said, ‘You’re not really looking the part. We have to get you some new shoes,”’ Hayes said. “She took me shoe shopping. That’s a humorous story, but it just proves the warmth of our personal relationship and also her ability to deliver direct messages and feedback.”
Now, Geraghty has among the more challenging jobs in the U.S. airline industry. ( In fact, after Skift interviewed Geraghty, the company announced July 20 it would be cutting an unspecified number of jobs as part of an overall $300 million cost savings program.)
Still, JetBlue earn high marks from passengers, particularly in Boston and New York, for its comfortable seating, free WiFi and television and relatively friendly customer service. But on several other important metrics, it lags competitors.
One problem recently has been on-time performance. In April, the most recent month for which data is available, JetBlue finished last among the largest 17 U.S. airlines for on-time arrivals, with only about two-thirds of flights arriving within 14 minutes of their scheduled time. JetBlue was also last in March, with a slightly worse rate.
Geraghty said JetBlue suffers because its two biggest focus cities cities are in the Northeast, plagued by poor weather and air traffic control delays.
“We fly into some tough airspace so we’ve got to execute better than everybody else,” she said. “I think the customers that we fly out of New York and Boston know this. They know these are congested airports and they’re savvy enough to understand that in many cases the operational disruptions are … outside of our control.”
But the airline is still trying to improve, she said.
“We’re making certain investments to reduce our controllable delays, [such as] adding some buffers on our redeye flights, but our focus is really looking at it on an airport-by-airport basis and making sure that each performs well, given the constraints they have,” she said.
She’s also leads JetBlue’s commericial team, guiding strategy as the airline tries to match profit margins of larger airlines. While JetBlue has considerable scale in Boston and New York, it is far smaller overall than American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and even Alaska Airlines, which acquired Virgin America in 2016.
In an age in which American, United and Delta, along with their partners, can take passengers nearly everywhere, JetBlue lacks the size to give customers as much breadth. It’s one reason JetBlue is considering launching flights from New York and Boston to Europe. In both markets, JetBlue would prefer its best customers not fly other airlines on key transatlantic routes.
Geraghty’s team also will evaluate whether JetBlue should match no-frills basic economy fares sold by United, Delta and American. So far, JetBlue has not followed, but it’s a competitive business, and sometimes airlines must respond to the market, even when they would prefer not to. (In 2015, JetBlue was one of the last U.S. airlines to charge for a first checked bag, matching competition when Wall Street demanded it.)
And while it’s not her main charge, she said she seeks bring diversity to the airline. She notes fewer than 5 percent of pilots are women, and less than 3 percent of technicians — both numbers she’d like to increase.
For flight attendants and airport agents, the numbers are better, but at headquarters, women remain underrepresented, she said.
“It’s discouraging when you sit around a table and you look and you realize there aren’t more women in the room or people of color, without quite understanding why, because you look around and there’s nothing in that room that a woman couldn’t do as well as a man,” she said.