Man in Motion
08/26/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
These days everyone in the airline business seems to be talking about David Neeleman. Everyone except Neeleman himself, whose attention-deficit disorder keeps small talk to a minimum. "When I call him," says daughter Ashley, 20, "I've got 20 seconds before he says, 'I gotta go!' There are so many things going through his mind."
Undoubtedly one of those things is JetBlue, the low-cost, high-service airline he founded three years ago. One of the few national airlines thriving in the wake of Sept. 11, JetBlue is now the largest domestic carrier at JFK. Innovative touches, including roomy leather seats and free DirecTV but no onboard meals, are a few of the reasons its passenger rolls are swelling from 3.1 million last year to an estimated 5 million in 2002. JetBlue's fares are also as much as 65 percent lower than those of its Big Six rivals, one of whom, US Airways, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Aug. 11, while a second, American Airlines, announced plans to lay off 7,000 workers.
JetBlue, says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Today show, embraces two words that most airlines don't: common sense. I'm so amazed these other guys don't get it." Adds frequent flyer Diana Nyad, the former long-distance swimmer who is host of Minnesota Public Radio's The Savvy Traveler: "It used to be that the customer was always right, and JetBlue has brought that back. I feel like I am totally taken care of."
So, it seems, does the JetBlue workforce. Unlike many CEOs whose names are in the headlines, Neeleman, 42, isn't interested in getting any richer. "I already own 8 percent of the company," he says of his estimated $150 million net worth. "It would be inappropriate to take more money than that." Instead, he allows himself a $200,000 salary but no stock options—offering them instead to JetBlue's 3,100 workers. He also gave up his corner office to free space in the company's Queens headquarters and makes monthly airport visits to spend time in the trenches with his baggage handlers and ticket takers. "With other aviation companies, upper-level management doesn't like to mingle with employees," says Fred Ramos, JetBlue's ground-operations supervisor at JFK. "But David wants to be smack in the middle of everything."
Neeleman's approach to his ADD is also unorthodox. When one of his six siblings was professionally diagnosed in 1994, Neeleman diagnosed himself after reading—but not quite finishing—a book on the subject. Now, rather than taking medication, he embraces the disorder, crediting the quicksilver thinking typical of people with ADD for many of his JetBlue brainstorms. Yet he admits that it has its drawbacks. "You always feel like you underachieved," he says. "And it would be nice to sit and have a really long conversation with somebody."
Neeleman's distractibility began showing when he was a kid in Salt Lake City, the second of seven children of Gary, 68, a Los Angeles Times Syndicate International executive vice president, and Rose, 67, Gary's personal assistant. In school, says Gary, Neeleman "was always looking out the window, thinking of something else." He struggled with reading and writing, taking easier classes to keep his grades up. But part-time work at his grandfather's convenience store laid the framework for Neeleman's future success. "Dad's main idea was that you don't tell the customer you can't do it or you don't have it," says Gary. "You do everything humanly possible to make it happen."
In 1978 Neeleman left the University of Utah for his two-year missionary sendee (a requirement for young adult Mormon males). Working with the poor in Brazil, he says, imbued him "with this egalitarian view of life that no one should be better than anyone else." After he returned to Utah in 1980, he married college sweetheart Vicki Vranes, now 42. Their first child, Ashley, arrived a year later, as Neeleman started a travel agency that specialized in Hawaiian time-shares. It went out of business three years later, but a corporate travel agent recruited him to head a charter airline she was starting. After nearly a decade of success, it was sold to Southwest Airlines in 1993. In 1996 Neeleman helped launch the Canadian airline WestJet. In 1999, with $130 million in backing, he started JetBlue. The company quickly took off, turning a profit just six months after its first flight in February 2000.
At home in New Canaan, Conn., Neeleman has a second fleet to manage: nine kids, ages 3 to 20. "When he comes home, you hear running," says Vicki. "He's got kids on his knees, in his arms. We just keep talking and laughing."
But not counting money. "The kids know they're not going to be heirs to a big fortune, because I'd rather set up a charitable foundation and let them feel the joy of blessing other people's lives," says Neeleman. "It's only through helping other people that you get happiness."
Mark Dagostino in New York City