EXCLUSIVE: JetBlue CEO Barger Sees More Airlines Headed Worcester’s Way
Friday, October 04, 2013
Last April, JetBlue Airways announced the newest addition to its growing network: Worcester. Service to the airline's 80th city will take flight on November 7, with daily service to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida.
As a leading air-passenger service, with hubs in Boston, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, Orlando, Los Angeles, New York City and San Juan, JetBlue carries 29 million customers a year to 79 cities in the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America. In addition to Worcester, upcoming destinations include Savannah, Georgia; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; and Lima, Peru, subject to receipt of government approval.
With JetBlue, all seats on its more than 600 daily flights are assigned, all fares are one-way, and an overnight stay is never required. JetBlue's fleet totals 188 aircraft, comprising 129 Airbus A320s and 59 Embraer E190s.
Barger has been with JetBlue since Day One. He was part of the founding team, in 1998, and served as the COO until 2007. In addition to his present chief executive duties, he serves on the company’s Board of Directors.
Barger’s interest in airlines came from his father, who was a United Airlines pilot for 37 years. From 1982 to 1988, he served in several positions with New York Air. In 1992, he joined Continental Airlines and held various management positions, including vice president of Continental's hub at Newark Liberty International Airport.
In 2007, the airline was forced to cancel nearly 1,700 flights due to winter storms. In response, JetBlue's board replaced David Neeleman with Barger as CEO. Neeleman, the company's largest individual investor, became a non-executive chairman as a result of the change. In 2009, Barger also became the president.
The Michigan native and Detroit Tigers fan is also a savvy businessman. Because JetBlue flies in and out of the heart of Red Sox Nation, JetBlue is an official sponsor the Red Sox.
And while Barge may also root for the Detroit Red Wings, we’re in Bruins and Sharks territory. No surprise, then, that JetBlue just became an official sponsor of both Boston’s major-league and Worcester’s minor-league hockey teams.
Red Sox Nation is global
Following, are edited highlights of an exclusive GoLocalWorcester interview with Barger, conducted during his October 2 visit to Worcester.
You’re a native of Michigan and a big Detroit Tigers fan. However, Boston is one of JetBlue’s biggest markets, and the Red Sox minor-league team’s park is JetBlue Park in Fort Meyers, Florida. If the Red Sox face the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, which team would you root for?
That’s a tough question. I think I would probably say, I hope it’s three games each [that the two teams win in the best-of-seven series]. So it at least goes seven games, and then may the best team win as we go into the seventh game of the Championship Series. How’s that?
Does that mean you’ll be rooting for both teams in the seventh game?
I win either way, I really do. I love the Tigers. [I’m] a season ticketholder and have been, for years. The Red Sox have just been near and dear to JetBlue. They’ve been terrific, whether it’s been down in Fort Myers [during spring training] or whether it’s up here in Boston [during the regular season].
And you have to be careful because you’re in Red Sox Nation, now.
Oh, in a major way. This is definitely Red Sox Nation, that’s for sure. But it’s really nice to see what [Sox Manager John] Farrell has done with the team this year - what a turn, from last year. When I think about [this] Friday night and what’s going to happen over at Fenway [at the Sox host the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of their best-of-five American League Division playoff series], they just have the best team in the American League.
Toronto’s loss of Farrell was our gain.
No doubt about that.
Listen, I win either way [if the Sox and Tigers meet in the playoffs]. What’s also nice, the farther these [playoff] games go, people travel to these games. It’s good revenue for us, too. Red Sox Nation – that’s global.
Off the charts
Let’s talk about JetBlue, now. Why is JetBlue launching service out of Worcester Regional Airport, starting November 7 –and why now?
First of all, [give] credit to Massport [which owns and operates Worcester’s airport] for helping to nudge us, over the years, regarding, “Hey, you have to take a look at Worcester, you have to take a look at Central Mass.”
As for why now, we start the [Worcester] service November 7 –one [flight] a day to Orlando and one a day to South Florida’s Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. I have to say “hat’s off” to so many [people who said to me], “Come, visit [Worcester]. Just see what it’s all about.” Whether it’s City Manager Mike O’Brien, Mayor Joe Petty, Governor [Deval] Patrick or [Chamber of Commerce President] Tim Murray, it’s just been, “Come see what’s happening here.” And when we did, it was off the charts. We had greater support for our brand than any other city that we’ve ever announced.
In the past, when airlines tried and failed here, they didn’t have backup planes. It could have been nice weather and blue skies here in Worcester but the aircraft was stormed-in at wherever it was coming from, and there was no backup airline here. Is that going to be a problem for JetBlue, or does it have enough backup planes because it’s a much bigger airlines with much deeper pockets?
First of all, our commitment is [to provide] daily service [at Worcester]. It’s not scheduled charter – it’s point-to-point flying. I think the other airlines [that have tried Worcester] fly into their hubs. Customers want to fly non-stop.
We’re at Logan Airport, with the largest footprint that any airline has at Logan. We’re at Hartford. We’re down in Providence. Soon, we’ll be in Worcester, as well. So there’s support across New England, when Mother Nature is going to throw a right hook our way – and she does. So along those lines, [we] have additional lift and [we] have the additional support of the rest of the operations here, across New England – including Portland [in Maine] and Burlington [in Vermont]. I mean, the list goes on. We’re just resourced to do it differently and to do it better.
I suppose if there is ever an issue with a JetBlue plane in Worcester, you could put passengers in a limo van and take them to Logan, where they could catch a JetBlue flight there.
Sure. Or, conversely, [we’d] just move an airplane from Logan Airport over to Worcester. That’s the kind of stuff that we’ve gotten pretty good at doing. We’re at five airports in the New York [City] metropolitan area, at multiple airports across South Florida and the west coast of Florida, the [Los Angeles] basin, and up in the [San Francisco] Bay area. So [we] get to learn pretty well how to protect something that might be happening in San Francisco with assets over at Oakland or San Jose. The same applies here, in New England and across Central Mass.
How are ticket sales going here in Worcester for JetBlue?
They’re very strong. But again, the service is launching when it should be strong. This time of year is great: The leaves are turning; it’s natural that people are looking to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday [as [well as for the] Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s [holidays]. And then the snow birds really start flying south. So it’s strong right now.
The message that we would share, really across Central Mass., is [that we are] looking for that word-of-mouth and looking for that support year-around. The holidays: That’s a layup. It’s what happens during the trough time of the year, what happens when the kids go back into school. But what we’re seeing right now in our visibility is strong bookings.
Does that mean there may be a dip in business here in Worcester during the summer months? If so, how would you address that, and how could the community help to address that, if Central Mass. people aren’t flying South as much, during the summertime?
Our commitment is long-term. We open a market and, of course, we look at the results over the first year and end of year two. When we hire 19 people locally, as we have [done in Central Mass.], and [are] making good on contracts with [Worcester’s] airport and our partners at the airport, we look at this as a long-term proposition.
We have learned, over the years, how to manage the troughs. It’s not so much the number of people on the airplane – it’s the yield [revenue per passenger mile]. When the kids are back in school and it’s now September, or it’s before the Memorial Day holiday, there are certain times of the year [for] the industry, including JetBlue – [when the yield is] just a little softer. I think we’ve learned that, … here in New England, especially with a very good proxy over at Harford, Providence and, of course, Logan Airport.
By the way, it’s not just people heading South [from New England] - it’s also people heading up here, who live in Florida and are coming to this part of the world. Or, they’re connecting Central America, South America and the Caribbean, up to here, visiting friends and relatives.
During the summertime, people in Florida want to get away from hurricanes and heat.
You’re right. And what better place [to go], than the Berkshires and Western Mass. So [Worcester] is a nice gateway into that [part of New England], as well. So we feel real good about how we’re positioned here, [in Worcester] for the start-up [of JetBlue service in November].
A single that can grow into at least a double
Because you’re a big baseball fan, do you consider Worcester a single, a double, a triple or a home run for JetBlue?
It’s a very good question. With any market that we enter – with the exception of where we’re flying just one trip a day into a market, [such as] Barbados or Albuquerque – [we] start [service] with two flights a day. That’s a single. But our message is: How do we grow it into double? Or, if I look at Hartford: How we make it a triple? Logan airport: My gosh, we’re now into out 11th year [there], and to think that we went from zero to 120 trips a day.
That’s a grand slam.
That’s a grand slam. I mean, that’s two grand slams. That’s a Jim Rice and a Carl Yastrzemski, [batting] back-to-back. But I’m just being realistic, as well. We enter a market such that a single can become a double, at least, and then continue to grow it. So again, our message to the [Central Mass.] community is, use us, let us know what’s working, and let us know when we’re dropping the ball, as well, because we want to be part of this community.
If you were to add a Florida Gulf Coast destination out of Worcester, what would it most likely be?
I think it would be Fort Myers and/or Tampa. And, again, I look at Hartford/Springfield as a really good proxy. [When we entered the Hartford/Springfield market] we started service to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, and we’re now into Tampa and Fort Myers, [and,] on the East Coast, we’re now into West Palm Beach, out of Hartford, [and] we’re now daily into San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well.
I tend to think of Fort Myers [as a Florida Gulf Coast destination out of Worcester] because there’s such an affinity for Massachusetts in Fort Myers. By the way, [going] right back to baseball, a lot of that is because of the Red Sox, [who have their spring-training camp there, at JetBlue Park at Fenway South].
If you see a lot of people out of Worcester connecting to San Juan, would you consider a direct flight to San Juan from Worcester?
Absolutely [yes]. When I look at daily service out of Hartford [to San Juan], it’s probably something that wants to be double-daily. As we get into [prime] season at Logan Airport, we look at multiple trips a day down to San Juan. Why not [eventually add San Juan service] in a [place like Worcester]. And we’ll start to see the connecting patterns, as well, because you can travel down to San Juan [and other Caribbean destinations] by crossing from Orlando or Fort Lauderdale into the Caribbean. … And that helps us predict where we want to put that next airplane.
Mass. may get a taste of Mint
On September 30, JetBlue introduced Mint, a premium-class service that consists of the longest lie-flat beds in domestic business class as well as four private suites among the 16 Mint seats. JetBlue’s brand was partly built on the idea that it treats all its passengers equally. Doesn’t Mint, which launches next summer, kind of fly in the face of that?
Not at all. Mint is the product of [us] listening to our customers. Most importantly, we have a new airplane that, if the [U.S.] government wasn’t shut down, would have been arriving today [October 2] from Hamburg, Germany. But we didn’t have the authorization from the FAA. because their offices were shut down, to fly the airplane. … What a shame with what’s happening in Washington, DC.
Now all that said, ... this new airplane has the real estate [that enables us] to offer the premium experience without compromising the core experience. What we’ve heard over time from our customers in this core experience – I don’t like to use the word “coach” – is that’s where the bulk of the traveling public fly. That’s where they live, on JetBlue. So how do you have even more comfort offerings?
… I can’t wait for the challenge to be: Shouldn’t we add [Mint service] out of Massachusetts? Shouldn’t we add that, out of Boston to San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well? I think that’s a product that will work very well up here.
When two plus two equals six
Does Worcester’s airport need an access road connecting it to the Mass. Pike?
I think everything’s fine, right now. But I do believe, over time, [that one will be needed. Because of Worcester’s good governmental and business leadership], when there’s enough demand at the airport, the ability to have easier access and the navigational aids will happen. That’s because communities realize how important an airplane is, when it arrives. I mean, 100 people getting off an airline, and the trickle-down of the economy into the community, that’s a big number. And [there are] corporations and small businesses looking to build, looking to relocate, based on [the availability of] air-travel [services]. Look at the educational grid that you have here, as well - it’s terrific. So, over time, all that stuff will happen.
Is Worcester doing a good enough job telling its story to the air-traveling public, to help supplement what JetBlue is doing with your own marketing, branding and promotions?
I think Worcester and Massport have been very vocal about Worcester. But for the most part, the [airline] industry [has been hit by] bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions [and the price of] oil at fill-in-a-number. They’ve been busy downsizing. I mean, there are hubs that have basically closed, when you look at Cincinnati, Memphis, Pittsburgh and the list goes on. So I think it’s more that the [Worcester] story will tell itself over time. But somebody [such as JetBlue] has to come in [and succeed]. … I think Massport nudging us over the years [to go to Worcester, was] very helpful – there’s just no doubt about it. …
Presuming that JetBlue does quite well here in Worcester, will there be other airlines that could very well come in here? Or, is there only so much demand for service in Worcester and really a need for only one airline, like yours?
I truly believe the best thing that could happen is, another airline - or airlines – announces service into Worcester. When you look at retail stores or auto dealerships and how they’re side-by-side, it’s amazing what happens when, all of a sudden, there’s more than one airline in a market. People [would then] say, “Listen, I can fly out of Worcester to a lot of locations – not just Orlando, not just Fort Lauderdale. So two plus two does equal six, along those lines.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s an incredibly competitive industry. But when other airlines [enter the Worcester market and] can take you to their hubs or across the country, what happens is, people start to realize that [Worcester’s] airport is a full-service airport. It’s good for food, beverage and retail. It’s good for rates and charges at the airport. The next thing you know, there are auto-rental companies that are setting up shop. That word-of-mouth [starts to spread, and] that’s good [for all airlines flying out of Worcester].
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
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