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This article was written by Marisa Garcia, editor of Flightchic.Com, on behalf of World Aviation Festival.
The first thing you sense when talking with JetBlue President and COO Joanna Geraghty is that she is a sharp thinker and straight-shooter, with a clear vision of the future, and a considered path forward. Geraghty talks with passion and pride of her team and her airline, and expresses a sincere commitment to making air travel people-friendly.
In this candid conversation, exclusive for Total Blue Sky, we discussed Geraghty’s views on innovation, technology, competition, route growth and the accomplishments she’s most proud of.
Making People’s Lives Better
“From my perspective, innovation means a new idea, a new way of thinking, maybe a new process or a new solution, a new technology—any of those types of things that solve problems or make something better and ultimately that deliver value,” Geraghty says. “Those two things are key: something useful that delivers value and makes people’s lives better.”
“I’ve been with JetBlue for almost 14 years and I think innovation is in our DNA. It’s how we approach our business, being founded as an airline that was designed to bring humanity back to air travel, which in and of itself, back in 2000, was innovative. Then, doing it by having a plane with all leather seats, unlimited snacks, free TVs on every seat—it’s just part of how we were formed, and it continues to be part of who we are. It’s in our culture, which is innovative by most company standards.”
“We have five core values, which focus very much on taking care of our people. If you don’t take care of your people, they, in turn, won’t take care of your customers. We continue to evolve and be innovative in the customer experience. We are a very customer-centric organization and a customer-centric business. Sometimes airlines forget that we are here to serve the people.”
The Mint Cabin
One of the big innovations that Geraghty highlights is the introduction of JetBlue’s Mint cabin in 2014, which was the first introduction of lay-flat beds on transcontinental routes.
“The launch of Mint was remarkably innovative. Frankly, the idea itself isn’t innovative but the way we implemented and executed it was entirely innovative,” Geraghty says. “We took something that was inferior—the first-class experience across the United States—and we said we can do something completely different in this space that not only delivers an exceptional product and service but does it at a much lower cost to our customers.”
Mint has grown in popularity from its introduction and is now available on up to 80 JetBlue flights per day to 15 cities. “The rest of the industry has had to up their game as well,” Geraghty says. “Companies that are innovative and find better ways to do things raise the bar for other organizations. [Competitors] begin to think out of the box as well.”
The ‘Jetblue’ Effect
Geraghty sees other airlines adopting JetBlue innovations as a sign that JetBlue is doing things right.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Geraghty says. “Our view is ‘copy us’ because at the end of the day it will make things better for the consumer, better for the flying public. That makes everybody appreciate the industry more and appreciate what JetBlue does. We call it the ‘JetBlue effect’.”
“When we go to new markets—that are generally monopoly markets—we push fares down because we come in with a view that we want to be available, we want customers to be able to easily fly us, we want them to be able to afford to fly us.”
“The ‘JetBlue effect’ applies not just to the cost of the flight but also to the service that you deliver. For example, Boston/La Guardia had American, and Delta, before JetBlue started operating and the lowest 14-day advance purchase was $165, now its $82. That would not have happened but for JetBlue coming in; and because we have a better product and service the other carriers have to raise their game too. You focus on the customer, and putting them first, and be flattered when other carriers copy what you’re doing.”
Wait And Observe
Geraghty cautions that sometimes it’s best to wait and observe the evolution of a technology before leaping to adoption.
“A good example is broadband wifi,” she says. “We were a little bit late to the party on onboard wifi because we wanted to do it right. Innovation doesn’t mean being, it means coming up with a better way and adding value. We purposely, with broadband wifi, would be follower, but offer a much better product and offer it for free.”
JetBlue has also focused on innovation from the ground up.
“One of the challenges we were having in our lobby, particularly in JFK, is that people like to fly at a particular time and airport lobbies can get very crowded. In this environment in the U.S., where airports are constrained whether by slots or congestion, you have to find different ways to increase your throughput.”
“We designed a lobby that has customers doing self-check-in, self-printing their bag tags and self-dropping their bags. We wrap around the technology a new creative way to re-define the customer experience, by taking our people — who are fantastic and the secret sauce behind JetBlue — and turning them into hospitality zealots.”
“They no longer print boarding passes and bag tags. They know their value and they are there to help customers check-in and help them with the things that they need.”
“We all know that air travel is stressful,” Geraghty says. “By implementing these self-service lobbies we were able to increase throughput during peak travel times, increase the number of flights we operate during those peak travel times, improve the customer experience by putting our people to work in a more meaningful way that adds value. It was a win-win, and customers loved the technology because it was faster and easier.”
Of the emerging technologies that will significantly re-shape the airline industry, Geraghty believes biometrics will be the biggest game changer. JetBlue is already acting on adoption.
“We were the first airline in the US to have integrated biometric boarding process where your face was not just your identification but also your boarding pass for international flights,” she says. “We are able to do it at JFK, Boston and Ft Lauderdale now.”
“You can walk to the gate, step up to the camera, smile and never show you boarding pass, never show your ID. You just take a picture at the biometric-enabled camera, which then sends a message back on whether you are permitted to board based on the identification that is on record with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Not only is that a super-cool experience for customers, but it also frees up our people to really focus on the human touch-points of somebody’s travel experience; not scanning a boarding pass or checking identification.”
Innovative Airline Operating Models
When it comes to innovative airline operating models, JetBlue can already lay claim to having changed the industry by finding a niche between ultra-low cost airlines and the majors. But the airline is still studying the prospect of transatlantic service.
“There is space out there for different models. There are different customers who have different wants and needs. The ULCCs clearly speak to a much more cost-sensitive customer. The legacy carriers with their frequent flyer programs appeal to road warrior customer.”
“JetBlue has positioned itself between those two models to appeal to customers who want more value out of the product and service and don’t want to pay a lot of money for it. If we were to fly transatlantic, our focus would be similar to our Mint product out to the West Coast.”
“We would have premium and a core or coach product,” Geraghty says. “From my perspective, we’re a value carrier and a customer-centric carrier and there is always a demand for that from the traveling public. We have a lot of customers who love JetBlue and they tell us to keep up the good work.”
Transatlantic Routes And Growth Markets
One of the factors JetBlue is still considering before deciding on the launch of transatlantic routes is the aircraft type.
“We have a great airplane, the A321, and it has been remarkably good to us on our mid-route to the West Coast and it’s also a fantastic airplane, in terms of building margins on our Caribbean market. The next version of Mint may on be the long-range version of the A321 that Airbus will be offering.
“We need to make a decision on whether or not that aircraft, that has been such a great aircraft for us, whether the best spot to put it on flying transatlantic market,” Geraghty says. “We have not made a decision yet, we are studying it.
“We believe similar to the West Coast transcontinental market, there are a number of markets across the Atlantic that are ready for disruption. Especially, if you look at walk-up fares on some of those markets for premium products, they are remarkably high. When you think about what JetBlue was able to accomplish flying to the West Coast, you can see that there could be a similar opportunity flying transatlantic.”
“If we were to design our product and service for flying to transatlantic, it would be great,” Geraghty adds. “We succeeded in flying to the West Coast and we think there is a similar opportunity flying to Europe. At the end of the day, we must make sure that is the best use of the A321. We’ve got a lot of things already in the pipeline, like the new A220 coming online in 2020,” Geraghty adds.
While pondering Europe, JetBlue is growing in the Caribbean, Central and South America and Geraghty believes there is still room to grow within the range of the airline’s aircraft. The airline recently announced service to Guayaquil, Ecuador starting in February of 2019. “If you look at demographics and population, I definitely think there is further growth,” she says. “Those markets have been very good to JetBlue.”
Giving Back To The Community
JetBlue has also been committed to giving back to the markets that help it grow through community initiatives that sometimes fly under the radar. It is the work that the JetBlue team does that Geraghty say she is most proud of, including their commitments to communities.
“I tend to be most proud of the projects where my team has success. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the people who work for you try really hard do an exceptional job,” she says.
“As an organization, our mission is to inspire humanity. We connect 40 million customers annually, for all sorts of different reasons but our view as a corporation isn’t limited to flying people around. We are also very committed to the communities that we serve. When communities are down, we step in to help; whether it is a hurricane, a fallen law enforcement officer, a crew member has had something tragic happen. JetBlue quietly offers to help in ways that we can.”
As we spoke with Geraghty, she was preparing to fly out to Puerto Rico to give out grants to various schools for STEM education, as part of JetBlue’s ongoing commitment to the community after last year’s hurricanes. “For us, that type of engagement with the community creates such loyalty and commitment to a brand, and to the people that we employ as well,” she says. “I can’t be more proud on the things that we have done that focus on our core values.”