12 May 2007

The Passing of the Torch at jetBlue

Entrepeneurs are seldom good at knowing when to kick themselves out or upstairs. The airline industry is littered with egos of people who have never learned when. (Ed Beauvais, Michael Conway amongst others). Also there are many stories of people who stayed on too long in almost any industry.

I encourage the reader to check out Robert J Serling's Aviation History Series which is a pretty good chronicle of greed and chutzpah: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/102-8178272-0316913?%5Fencoding=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=Robert%20J.%20Serling

So it is with some sadness and hope that we see David Neeleman being kicked upstairs. There is no sub-plot. The airline was caught wrong footed twice this winter. Its customer service strategy was simply inadequate and the operations manual was - well just plain wrong. It has been fixed (we are led to believe) but the damage is done. So the Founder takes the fall and is kicked upstairs.

However there is a footnote to this which I believe is important to consider. jetBlue decided to use the strategy of low cost carrier, (LCC like Southwest) but full product. The differentiation being that unlike Southwest - B6 would treat its customers to a better experience and charge a premium over true low costs carriers. Thus boosting the bottom line with a higher margin than either the top cost (Legacy, Full Service Network Carriers - FNCs) or the bottom player LCCs. This was a good attempt at hybridization or HVC - Hybrid Value Carriers.

There are 2 flaws to the jetBlue strategy in my opinion.

Flaw 1 - JFK. Not the best place to have a hub due to longer lead times and other endemic problems with the airport and staffers.
Flaw 2 - Competition. Assuming that the others will stay stupid for ever is a temporary strategy at best. Delta has emerged with a focus on JFK but for different reasons (International). The net is that Delta's value proposition is better than jetBlue's when the carriers are compared on a more common set of metrics.

Both these two flaws along with a failure to continue development of a "secret sauce" differentiator by jetBlue is inhibiting its growth profile. So the stock market darling of the early part of the decade is now mired in the same sets of issues and obstacles that it sought to throw rocks at. It is for this reason that jetBlue's customer service failure has more impact. Neeleman wanted this to be the big differentiator.

Wisely there is going to be a seasoned hand on the tiller. Let's all hope that the focus returns and that jetBlue can continue to give the others a run for the money. We all love the underdog. But are we willing to pay for the good feeling? Ultimately no. Its as always - price/service mix.



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