I just arrived in Tampa, FL., happy to leave over six feet of snow in Boston. I flew on JetBlue, my favorite air carrier. But my loyalty will be severely tested this year.
Up until now, JetBlue has courageously refused to follow the rest of our domestic air carriers in their downward spiral of degrading the customer experience while chasing profits. Recent stories of passenger fights over “seat reclining” on airlines such as Delta and United illustrate how most airlines are pushing the absolute limit of we can tolerate instead of focusing on serving us even better.
JetBlue has stood out from the pack. Under the leadership of outgoing CEO Dave Berger they have made delivering a great passenger experience their top priority. And it makes a real difference. Though it was born as a low cost airline, passengers like me are now willing to pay a premium for the JetBlue experience.
Because they have allowed a free checked bag to everyone, the overhead bins are less crowded and boarding the plane is easier. The flight attendants are less stressed and better “hosts” to the passengers. The whole feeling aboard the plane is markedly different than other airlines. I don’t hear the typical complaints when people sit down about how “they are packing us in like cattle”. There are lots of smiles as people hook up to the free video at every seat and choose from the unlimited snacks, including the famous “blues” chips.
Analysts and investors have pressured CEO Berger to optimize profits and focus first on raising the stock price. They accuse him of “being overly concerned with passengers and their comfort”. Overly concerned with customer comfort? Wow!
JetBlue’s leaders have caved to pressure from shortsighted investors.
So now, changes have been announced. Incoming CEO Robin Hayes will preside over the systematic chipping away of the JetBlue experience. More rows of seats are being added to reduce leg room. First checked bags will no longer be free to the lowest price tier of economy tickets. And how do they defend these changes? JetBlue’s “spin” is, “We are still better than the other guys”. In other words, instead of setting the standard in passenger comfort for the whole industry; JetBlue’s new motto is ‘we will be at the high end of the mediocre experience you have grown to hate’. So sad. And so likely to fail.
What does this say about “courage to lead” at JetBlue?
Not much, I’m afraid. It’s another example of a successful company beginning to take its customers for granted and letting a narrow focus on profits supplant the core values that built the brand. When you start treating your customers as captives — “where else can they go anyway?” — you abandon your guiding question of “how can we serve them even better and expand the gap with our competitors?” You’ve joined the spiral to the bottom.
JetBlue has been rated as offering the “best in flight flying experience” of all US airlines. It took years of concerted effort by all JetBlue employees to earn that trust. Why risk trashing their hard-earned brand? Once broken, the trust of your customers is extremely difficult to regain.
For a contrast in leadership, take a look at Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.
Under similar pressure at a 2014 shareholder meeting; in this case, to cut back on Apple’s climate initiatives and related energy policies, CEO Cook responded:
“We do a lot of things at Apple for reasons beyond the profit motive. We want to leave the world a better place than we found it. If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock”.
And we all know how Apple’s profits are soaring. At a valuation of $750 billion, they are now the most valuable company in the world — ever! And Tim Cook just announced an $850 million California Solar Energy Initiative by Apple.
Exuberant leaders stay true to the company’s core values and the promise of their brand. They inspire their organizations to be the best; not “the best of the rest”. They focus on their customers and employees and turn aside the short-term pressures of Wall Street. Their exuberant energy for winning the long game wins over their investors. Their customers reward them with fierce loyalty that gives them more pricing power.
Which kind of leader are you?