Saving JetBlue
Might Be a Breeze
SUNDAY, JANUARY 14, 2024 -- A long time ago (2006) in a city far, far away (London), Robin Hayes raced through an elaborate British Airways event held to promote the carrier's first refresh of its then-groundbreaking business class beds.

He grabbed a new amenity kit and turned up his nose. "These aren't very good, are they?" he said to me. "They don't feel like a premium product, do they?"

They weren't and didn't, but I was surprised Hayes proactively pointed out the relatively small flaw in what was a genuinely impressive cabin remake. He was, after all, BA's highest-ranking U.S. executive at the time and, one presumed, on the star track to run the entire airline. I was just a lowly scribe focusing on upgraded beds and new F&B perks, not what BA routinely called "wash bags."

I have thought about that moment a lot in the week since Hayes announced he was leaving--or being pushed out of--the chief executive's chair at JetBlue Airways. The guy who couldn't help but deride a lower quality BA amenity kit 18 years ago is departing an airline that he dragged to the bottom of the heap of U.S. carriers.

To say Hayes' tenure atop JetBlue has been a disaster is an understatement. He inherited a profitable airline with a motivated workforce that was loved by passengers and envied by competitors. Nine years later, he is leaving an airline that is losing scads of money and riven with internal dissent. It doesn't run on-time or on-schedule. Hayes tried to buy Virgin America and failed. He forged a useful alliance with American Airlines only to walk away from it when an initial lawsuit went against him. He's pursued an egregious, $3.8 billion purchase of Spirit Airlines that will cost JetBlue millions even if no combination materializes. Worst of all, he's destroyed JetBlue's reputation by mindlessly aping the competitors that JetBlue once deftly out-maneuvered.

Things are so bad that there are real questions about JetBlue's ability to survive when it is too small to compete, too costly to run, not nearly nimble enough and living in the shadow of its former reputation as a disruptive innovator. JetBlue might not make it and, frankly, it's Hayes' fault. He chose the path of cheap, kowtowed to braying security analysts, steered the airline to the dark side and lost big time. If you believe the press release, he's ruined his health in the process, too.

Sadly, every moment of Hayes' disastrous tenure was predictable. In fact, I did predict it in my 2014 column called JetBlue Goes to the Dark Side. I urge you to read it because I don't think I've ever better proactively predicted disaster. And if you thought I was tough on Hayes in public, trust me when I tell you that I was even more strident in private E-mails, memos and calls. He eventually stopped taking my calls or responding to my E-mails, of course, because CEOs don't listen to anyone but yapping security analysts.

If you think I'm taking this personally, you're right. I liked Robin. I thought he was smart. I thought he could make a difference. I cheered when he was recruited in 2008 by JetBlue, an airline already making a difference. I knew his experience at BA could bring JetBlue's then-superior domestic service to the international skies. I despaired for his soul when he outlined his insane calculus of making his product just a little less awful than the other guys. It couldn't work. It didn't work. Now JetBlue is broken and so is Hayes.

Hayes will have to repair his health in his own time and in his own way. It is personal and it is none of our business. Good luck, Robin. Get healthy. Live a good life.

But what of JetBlue? That is our business--and it's a mess. Worse, the initial omens are not good. Hayes' designated successor is Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's president and chief operating officer. Geraghty is a lawyer who worked her way up the operational ladder at JetBlue. Recall the last lawyer who worked his way up an airline's operational pecking order? Jeff Smisek. How did that work out for United Airlines and for us?

But maybe there's a chance for JetBlue. For starters, it would have to abandon the insane Spirit Airlines deal. JetBlue only wants Spirit for the planes and the pilots anyway. And if that is what it needs, there's a better option: Buy or merge with Breeze Airways.

Breeze is a flailing start-up created by David Neelemen who, not coincidentally, created JetBlue. He's not much of a day-to-day airline operator, but Neeleman is one of those inspirational corporate types. JetBlue has suffered a crisis of the corporate soul since Neeleman departed in 2008. Reuniting JetBlue and Neeleman might turn the airline around emotionally and give it purpose again.

Besides, Breeze has what JetBlue covets: new Airbus A220s and a cheap(er) workforce. And Breeze certainly won't survive on its own. It has already lost around $250 million since its 2021 launch and its business plan--connect secondary and tertiary markets while largely ignoring big airports where most passengers are--is patently insane. Not to mention Breeze's litany of post-launch missteps.

Merging two ailing airlines rarely works, but this would be and could be a special circumstance. With Neeleman back for inspiration and access to aircraft and personnel, a combined Breeze-JetBlue might work if they find the right Jedi Masters to fix JetBlue's operations and restore its erstwhile reputation for quality. And JetBlue's one recent success, the high-yield Mint business class concept, might mesh with Breeze's fleet, which has a raft of premium seats that aren't selling or being properly branded or marketed.

Bringing a carrier back from the dark side--not to mention throwing a lifeline to a sinking start-up--might be just what the airline doctors ordered.

Work it could for passengers and profit there might be for investors ...