I had the privilege years ago of meeting David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue.  I am as impressed today as I was then by JetBlue’s understanding of delivering relevant competitive advantages.  Most airlines deliver next to none, I am sorry to report.  I fly over 100,000 miles each year so I can report from personal experience: most airlines don’t focus on customer care.  Early in my career I worked in management for two major airlines, both now dead:  Pan Am and Eastern Airlines.

There are many reasons those two carriers are no longer here. The head of a major union walked his members off the proverbial plank killing Eastern Airlines when they were struggling to make ends meet.  Pan Am also had union issues as well as cash flow challenges due to over extending on new aircraft and then the Lockerbie, Scotland explosion was the last straw.  They could not withstand the last knockout punch.

But early in the aviation glory days, the one thing airlines focused on was being relevant to passengers in ways that mattered most. This is what brought the success to those carriers and made them the preeminent names in aviation as the industry was growing.  There was a great deal of attention paid to schedule timings – arrivals and departures times most valued by fliers.  We analyzed the heck out of competitive time slots and fought hard to win favorable departure and arrival times from airport authorities.  Today I cannot find a nonstop from my hometown airport Fort Lauderdale to 80% of the destinations I travel to.  TheNonstop flight is an endangered species.  It’s an example of how the airlines operate their businesses based on their internal systems, and not based on what customer’s value.

JetBlue on the other hand makes great efforts to meet the customer needs in many ways.   In a Wall Street Journal article, How JetBlue Cracked the Boston Market , it is made clear that JetBlue is cleaning the clock of its rivals at this major airport. Their competitors pulled back on nonstops and made business travelers fly through hubs.   As a result the business traveler happily moved over to JetBlue.  Business travelers prefer convenience of nonstop flying over accruing thousands of miles we may never use (We travel so much that the last thing many of us want to do with our precious downtime is fly somewhere with our free miles).

JetBlue welcomed the business travelers by adding extra leg room options without charging an arm and a leg and global computer reservations systems for complex ticketing.  It also added expedited security screening to match the carriers who previously catered to the business crowd.  They have a newer fleet than most carriers, and a much more amenable culture for service personnel than many airlines.  Their free onboard DirectTV at every seat is a major hit, few competitors have matched.  Dave Barger, JetBlue’s chief executive says that 30% of their traffic is now business travelers, aka the higher yield passenger.  Not bad for an airline that started out as a low cost, vacation traveler’s airline.

I spend most of those 100,000 air miles each year presenting to business leaders.  I stress the importance of aligning internal decisions based on customer needs.  It is interesting to note how few companies are using customer needs as their strategic driver.  Customers know when companies are customer focused, or internally focused.

Like the JetBlue story, every day we find examples of the companies whose meteoric rise tanked because they stopped tuning in to their customers.  Please don’t be one of those.    Learn what is most relevant from your customers, the return on investment is staggering.

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