With a sizeable crowd in the Palestra, David Neeleman, CEO and founder of jetBlue, spoke on Friday afternoon of Meliora Weekend about the beginnings and work ethic of his company, being happy and making others feel the same way. Neeleman was scheduled to speak at last year’s Meliora Weekend but couldn’t because of a conflict with his son’s high school football games.Dean of The College William Green introduced Neeleman and related a positive personal experience he had flying the airline, a theme that was echoed and reinforced throughout Neeleman’s speech as he recounted how the public has embraced his company.”[jetBlue] reflects a corporate ideology, and the corporate values of serving customers,” Green said. “That kind of concern is what distinguishes jetBlue as an airline.”Neeleman began with a tribute to the university as a center of learning and turned then to his experiences, what he felt was most important about his company – providing people with affordable transportation and allowing people to be able to travel across the country as they please. Neeleman himself tries to fly on his own routes at least once a week and said he enjoys interacting with customers. “I love being on our route system,” he said. “I help serve snacks, I meet a lot of our customers. I met about 30 of you on the way here today, people coming for Parents’ Weekend and alumni.”Neeleman spoke of the difficulty of deciding to move out east and start the company, but decided in the end that it was the right thing to do, economically and personally. “I felt like the East Coast needed high-quality, low-cost airfare,” he said. “We started out with a premise that we wanted to bring humanity back to air travel.”He spoke of the situation, at the time, of air travel and how his brand of airline would change the landscape of flying. “People didn’t look forward to travel,” he said. With investors already lined up from his previous attempt at starting the airline Morris Air, Neeleman raised the $130 million required to start up jetBlue. “We decided we needed to do two things to survive for the long run,” Neeleman said. “We needed to raise a lot of money and we raised $130 million. And we needed to become the most efficient airline using the best technology.”Neeleman was the first to institute electronic ticketing for airlines and promoted the practice of online reservations.He also described his formula for success. “If you have the lowest cost and the best product, you have a pretty damn good chance of succeeding,” he said. “We have the highest profit margin in the industry. We had the most on-time flights, the fewest passenger complaints.”According to him, the key is in the people who work for the company, which translates to a happier customer and a happier employee. “There’s a most important asset and that’s our people,” he said. “We have the best and most dedicated people in the industry.”Customer service, to Neeleman, is above all what translates to the best product and what makes jetBlue a cut above the rest for domestic air travel. “We’re not focusing on becoming the best airline,” he said. “We’re focusing on being the best customer service company.”The employees in jetBlue are carefully selected and undergo rigorous training, as well as having a share in the company and feeling as if they are working for a purpose. “We pay our people well. We select the best people,” Neeleman said. “Eighty percent own a share in the company and 98 percent of pilots have stock options. They reap the benefits if the company is succeeding. We call each other crew members, everyone is equal. We all work in this together.”Neeleman also felt that a happy employee translates to a happy customer, and vice versa. “Customers know it,” he said. “They feel that difference when they fly.” He related the story of a man who told him of a seminar he had been to about being a better CEO and said that the most important theme was “do you matter” and what would happen if he or his company were “plucked from the face of the Earth.” He told Neeleman that the one company he would be distraught without was jetBlue. His life was better because of jetBlue and being able to travel easily across the country truly mattered to him. Neeleman posed the question to the audience of being valuable to others in your life . “Do you matter? Are you doing anything exceptional in your life to matter?”For Neeleman, serving others is one of the most important things in life, and something all should strive for. “You can serve others more and if you do that then you’ll have a deeper and richer life,” he said.He was asked what he thought of the competition and those that claim they will soon be better than jetBlue. “Other companies keep cutting salaries, saying they need to lower costs,” Neeleman said. “They can do it. I spend a lot more time worrying about us than everyone else.”When asked whether jetBlue will ever become an international airline, Neeleman said, “I never say never. But in order to fly long haul we need a different aircraft type and we’re not prepared for that.”Neeleman’s talk inspired some in the audience to use his airline after hearing what he had to say. “I’ll try to fly [jetBlue] more often,” Class of 1964 alumna Cathie Meisencahl said. Others felt his speech had additional positive merits. “I thought his talk was very good – it was very informative,” senior Jason Thompson said. “He’s an engaging personality.”Neeleman left the crowd with some words of wisdom on working not only for yourself, but for others. “The first thing in social responsibility is taking care of your own,” he said. “Then you can take care of others.”Linden can be reached atklinden@campustimes.org.



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