"You can't get where you're going unless you help other people get where they're going."
John Owen is the Co-founder and formerly the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Jetblue Airlines. John is currently an Angel Investor, Venture Partner, and advisor for multiple brands.
In this episode of Forward Obsessed, David and Pete speak with John Owen, co-founder of JetBlue, about his experiences in starting one of the largest airlines in the United States. Starting with his early experiences at Southwest Airlines, John discusses the importance of creating a positive company culture and hiring employees who fit that culture. Learn about the value of hiring for attitude and the need to rectify hiring mistakes before they negatively impact the work environment, especially when starting a business and experiencing rapid growth. Explore John’s decision-making process in building a successful brand, and how he focuses on the importance of differentiating Jetblue’s product from the competition. For young entrepreneurs and leaders, the message is clear: create a cohesive team, prioritize attitude over qualifications, and differentiate your product in a way that makes it stand out from competitors.
Building JetBlue with Culture and Innovation
When John Owen was asked to help found an airline that was to become JetBlue, he knew his work was cut out for him. The founder, David Neeleman, had no airplanes, no staff, no name or branding - only a vision of how a successful airline should be run. In just a few years, Jetblue grew to become one of the top airlines in America. In our recent Forward Obsessed Interview with John Owen, we explore how his team accomplished this in a short time by combining innovative approaches to company culture, airplane design, and crisis management. As of 2023, JetBlue has carried more than 470 million passengers since its launch and continues to define itself as a dynamic, disruptive force within the aviation industry.
Innovative Company Culture
From the start, JetBlue distinguished itself by focusing on an entrepreneurial culture that sought to "bring humanity back to air travel". This strategy, aimed at disrupting the status quo of the airline industry at the time, was coupled with a commitment to high-quality, friendly, and reasonably priced service. John Owen put it very simply - JetBlue, adopting the model created by Southwest Airlines, put the people first above all else. This included protecting and empowering their employees. John mentioned that employees not only benefited from monetary income, but also from psychic income, in which an employee is psychologically fulfilled by their work and are excited to contribute to the succesful initiatives attempted by their team.
This approach to culture helped JetBlue to create a brand that stood apart from its competitors, despite the challenging environment that characterized the aviation industry in the wake of the dotcom crash and 9/11. Jetblue was able to maintain an innovative, agile culture that allowed them to quickly and effectively react to market pressures.
Revolutionary Airplane Design
JetBlue also stood out for its approach to airplane design. When it launched its first commercial flight on February 11, 2000, it did so with an Airbus A320 named Bluebird, heralding a new era for the airline industry. Over the years, JetBlue has made significant investments in state-of-the-art aircraft, pushing the envelope of what is possible in terms of passenger comfort and convenience. This has included features such as comfortable seating, free satellite TV, and freewheeling yet attentive flight crews, all of which have contributed to the airline's popularity among passengers.
Response to 9/11 and Crisis Management
The 9/11 attacks brought about a state of existential risk to airlines, followed by sweeping changes to the way we do air travel, impacting every facet of the industry, from airport security to flight attendant training. For JetBlue, however, this tumultuous period also presented an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to its passengers and its ability to respond swiftly and effectively in the face of crisis. As John recounts, the agile team at Jetblue was able to roll our a bullet-proof cockpit door in a short time, reinstating confidence in the airline that allowed them to become the leading provider in the United States.
JetBlue has succeeded in carving out a unique niche for itself in the American airline industry through its innovative company culture, airplane design, and crisis management. The airline's ability to adapt to changing circumstances and maintain its commitment to providing high-quality, friendly, and reasonably priced services has played a crucial role in its rise to prominence. Even in the face of significant challenges, JetBlue has demonstrated resilience and a continuous drive for improvement, which have been instrumental in its journey to become one of the top airlines in America.