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  Blue Skies Ahead   Blue Skies Ahead  Robin Rusch  
         
 
Blue Skies Ahead When David Neeleman, a man who was distinguished for successfully launching two airlines already, decided to launch another low-fare offering, the result was JetBlue, a New York based airline served up with savings and style and sprinkled with a tremendous buzz that money can't buy. What's so great about them? Well they arrive on time for over two-thirds of their flights and, um, they're nice. I can hear it now, what's the world coming to when "nice" service is something to gush about? Well, here in the US, air travel has gotten a little bit degrading and showing up on time with your dignity (never mind luggage -- that's a bonus) is about all one can hope for these days.
 
Courtesy is something the JetBlue crew got from the start. As Gareth Edmondson-Jones, VP of Corporate Communications, says, "We wanted to bring the humanity back to airline travel. It's not enough just to launch a low-fare airline that can be undersold by the big carriers."

To achieve this, they instill an attitude of friendly, compassionate, caring service in the air and on the ground. After safety, customer service is the main feature of training for JetBlue staff. And there's no dead wood on board. Crewmembers whose attitudes don't soar are deplaned altogether (which means they are looking for jobs on all those other airlines... you've been warned). This attention to internal brand management is boosting JetBlue's external brand -- on flights where the big carriers match JetBlue's prices, passengers still choose to fly JetBlue. That can only mean the leather seats, extra legroom, and kindly service is having an impact on a sore group of fed up flight victims.

When asked what the greatest offense of the large carriers is, Edmondson-Jones hit the nail on the head by saying "Indifference. Indifference directed at the passenger. It's easy to feel that you've lost your dignity flying the big guys. You are a number and a boarding pass. It's like a cattle call.... Everyone's trying to shave three or four cents off a passenger. Passenger expectations are so low that when you help them with their baggage, it's a real shock from what they're used to." He went on to add: "It's amazing that the level of expectations for airlines in general and especially for discount entrants is so low that if you set your standards high, it's easy to create a reputation for customer service."

JetBlue's target market was people who would otherwise find themselves driving or taking a coach. And yet, the passenger list is still pretty varied and not as low-rent as you might anticipate. Partly this is due to the fact that JetBlue specifically courts a higher class of passengers. The passenger in search of a cheap fare is a given, so they concentrated their efforts on attracting business professionals and New York travelers who could pay more, but would be pleased to pay less without compromise to their own standards.

Edmondson-Jones insists that appealing to a higher class of people for a low fare airline is not a waste of resources. "People want to get somewhere quickly, safely, and comfortably. No one wants to pay more for a flight and at the same time you don't want to feel like you're surrendering one of these features in exchange for a cheaper fare."

So JetBlue baits you with a cheap fare and hooks you with their service. Service? On an airline that calls New York home? That's right. Special New York service. The staff is helpful, pleasant and stylish; they do not snivel, radiate hostility or wear ruffled uniforms. Other perks include seats with more room than average, personal television sets for each seat, and snacks but no food. What a pleasure to take a stretch down the aisle without having to wrestle down some miserable flight attendant pushing a heavy cart up the cramped aisle dispensing trays of slop. Instead a JetBlue attendant takes your order and returns with your drink and a bag of snacks. Although not factored in at the time of implementing, this gives JetBlue an opportunity to have two interaction points with the passenger while making him also feel well taken care of on a personal basis.

So are people going to switch to a little airline based on its cheap quality service? As Edmondson-Jones puts it, "If you loathe something, it doesn't make you feel good about repeat buying. If you choose a brand because it says something about you, you will walk away from a tag that says you're cheap. However if you buy something cheap that is good quality, it brands you as savvy." And nothing says New York, like a savvy shopper.

 
So how did JetBlue establish a brand so quickly? The branding strategy was an integral part of the start up process and has remained at the forefront. Edmondson-Jones and Amy Curtis, head of marketing, both bring talent and experience gained from earlier stints at Virgin Atlantic. Using their own wits combined with (and sometimes compromised by) outside agencies, they worked out the logo, the name, the uniform, and the colors that would illustrate the vision behind the brand.

The name development was perhaps the most harrowing piece of the brand puzzle. Many of the initial names were generally associative like Home, Competition, Civilization and Fresh Air, although only the latter evokes a feeling of movement or flight. Other names like Gotham, New York Air and the Big Apple, although strong on association with the hub city, would have limited the airline should it hope to branch beyond New York (which it's in the process of doing as it opens a second base in California). The top choice, Taxi, was too descriptive of the never-ending practice of driving around the runway and would no doubt have made a negative impression on potential passengers.

The next batch of names came from an agency, which floated Blue, Egg and It. Blue was well received but impossible to trademark without a qualifier; Egg was presumably to evoke the idea of people emerging from an egg (which is just a little creepy); in the end, the team played with the pared-down simple name: It. Edmondson-Jones says that initially they loved the idea of the tie in with labels such as "Eat It" on food and "Schlep It" on baggage, but began to worry that it would be too diminutive and common on the printed page. Besides someone could spray paint an "sh" in front of It Air on the tail fin and all would be over.

Out of ideas, JetBlue turned to another branding firm to restart the process. Unfortunately many of the names produced by the new firm didn't convey a sense of flying, in fact they were inexplicably ground bound. Names like Air Avenues, Air Hop or Hiway Air make the passenger wonder if he will ever be airborne. And frankly, what is "highway air" but pollution. Hardly inspirational for one about to be stuck in a cabin for a few hours. At that rate one wonders if "gridlock," "rush hour," and "roadkill" ever came up in the name game.

In the end, the JetBlue team chose the heavenly True Blue from among the offerings as the best of a dismal lot. But the hired firm neglected to check the mark status of True Blue before sending Neeleman and Co. home with their newly christened baby. Within weeks of True Blue's launch, it was discovered the name already belonged to a rental car company. The news left a gash that revealed a lack of passion for the name and a generally fed up and disheartened branding crew. Days before the launch, the name JetBlue was decided in an internal phone conference between the original JetBlue team.

No wonder Edmondson-Jones describes it as "the hardest thing we've done so far." And for such a seemingly easy-going guy that comes as a strong statement.

Once the name was final, everything else began to fall into place. The uniforms were switched from the official New York color of black to a midnight blue, the tailfins are kitted out in blue diamonds, blue chips are served as a snack on board and the logo is a gray setback "jet" leading to a bold, capital B "Blue." The original idea was to eventually drop the "Jet" and move on to Blue but Edmondson-Jones admitted there is now a fair amount of affection for JetBlue and the name will probably stick for some time to come.

The task then fell to JetBlue to take its meager (by industry standards) US$10M budget and launch a marketing campaign. Again they took the scrappy but sure approach of creating buzz with a few well-placed ad and media spots and then relying on word of mouth to spread the good news on JetBlue's unusual approach to passengers and transportation. As Edmondson-Jones notes, "Thankfully the industry helped us out; [the industry's so lousy that we appear like a knight on a white steed."

And because they are new, they don't have the distractions of mergers, quarterly losses, and strikes to contend with. Right now, JetBlue is in position to focus 100 percent on the customer. A little over a year old, they are already profitable and they are the number one on-time carrier in two-thirds of the cities they fly to. Costs are kept low by using a team of 400 reservationists who work from home, and completing 40 percent of transactions direct through the web.

A relative baby in the industry, JetBlue's mettle is yet to be fully tested. The industry is incredibly tough for a small, limited service newcomer and the competition is fierce. However, they've carved out a niche and appear to be cleared for take off with clear skies up ahead.    

[18-Jun-2001]

 
  
  

Robin D. Rusch lives and works in New York City.

     
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