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Fast Talk: David Neeleman

Since he founded JetBlue Airways in 1999, David Neeleman has reinvented the rules of flying. His innovations have given JetBlue a reputation for inexpensive, no-frills flying with an air of sophistication—although even the most business-like passengers have the opportunity to eat animal crackers and watch the Cartoon Network.

1. Where are you right now?
I'm on one of our brand-new Airbus A320s parked at our terminal at JFK in New York. I've just finished an interview with CNN on our new bulletproof cockpit doors, and I can't think of any place I'd rather be right now.

2. How did you get into the commercial airline business?
When I was in my mid-20s I started work with June Morris, who headed a successful travel agency in Salt Lake City. I helped her start a charter air service, which became Morris Air, which we later sold to Southwest Airlines. Morris was the first airline to introduce e-ticketing. After we sold it, I started a new company called Open Skies, which then sold the new technology to other airlines.

3. How often do you travel?Is it usually for business or pleasure?
At least weekly, and if I don't have any travel scheduled, then I just get on a couple of our flights anyway. It's so important to experience what your customers are experiencing and listen to their suggestions. I also really like getting to know our crew members better.

4. What is the one item you will not travel without?
That would be either my Blackberry or my Dick Tracy [calculator] watch. I'm always crunching numbers, so my calculator watch is a must. The Blackberry is really essential for keeping up on my emails when I'm out of the office, which is a lot.

5. What has been the biggest change in travel you have seen in the past year?
Without a doubt, it's been the events of September 11th and their aftermath. There's never been a more critical time in the airline business. For many airlines, it's not just about trying to limit losses—it's truly about survival. JetBlue is built for recession and we'll be fine, but you can never afford to be complacent. We're reviewing everything to see how we can do it better, faster, and more efficiently.

6. What new steps have you taken, if any, to bring back those customers who are reluctant to travel?
In addition to the bulletproof, titanium dead-bolted cockpit, which we've installed across the fleet, we're about to add security cameras in the passenger cabin. Using the LiveTV technology we already have onboard, the cameras will stream images into the cockpit so our pilots can check on what's going on in the cabin. They can then quickly take any actions needed to further protect our customers and crew.

7. What are your thoughts on federally regulated airport security?
I believe the public's confidence would be increased if the federal government took over the functions of airport security screening for all passengers. In the wake of September 11th, travelers remain a bit hesitant. New FAA security measures and National Guard troops at airports have helped this situation, but a federal takeover of what really is part of a national security issue is something JetBlue favors.

8. Based on the information you have, what changes or trends do you foresee in travel over the next six months?
We've seen our passengers come back to flying, but given the uncertain times, fewer people are booking too far out. And, of course, customers really need to feel safe and are seeking reassurance when they fly. I really see low-fare carriers, quality low-fare carriers anyway, continuing to become more and more popular. Value will always be on top of everyone's lists now, right along with safety.

9. What is the most common question asked by consumers, and how do you answer it?
It used to be "When will you have a frequent-flier program?" Now it's "Do you feel safe flying?" So, to answer both: Our frequent-flier program will debut in January 2002. And, as I already said, I fly all the time. I even took my whole family to Salt Lake City earlier this month, which I wouldn't have done if I were nervous about flying.

10. What is the travel advice you most often give these days?
Other than giving yourself a little more time, probably just enjoy the I Love Lucy reruns on the DirecTV channels at your seat. Of course, we should all be aware of what we're packing in our carry-on luggage—anything that might be considered dangerous could be confiscated at a security checkpoint.

- Interviewed by Hillary Geronemus

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