David Neeleman’s story within the airline industry is one of legendary innovation and successful entrepreneurship. He was born on October 16, 1959, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where his father was working as a foreign correspondent for United Press International. He spent his early childhood before the family moved back to the United States, settling in Cottonwoods, Utah when David was five years old. At the age of nine, Neeleman’s first job was working at his grandfather’s grocery store, Miniature Market, in downtown Salt Lake City. He worked there for ten years checking out customers, ordering materials, and stacking the shelves. His grandfather always took great care of his patrons and taught David about customer service and treating people nicely, always providing them the best experience possible in the store. This laid out the groundwork of his entrepreneurship and the value of a valued customer.
At age 19, Neeleman, a member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, returned to Brazil in the Mormon tradition and served as a missionary with underprivileged people. During his two years there, the experience taught him a major lesson, which he shared during a 2012 interview on NBC, “I not only learned how to deal with people, I saw extreme poverty,” he said, “I learned to love people like I had never learned before and to have compassion.” The experience also spurred his beliefs about equality and service to people, independent of their social or economic status.
After returning to the United States and while working toward a degree at the University of Utah, Neeleman began his own business selling vacant timeshare space for a condominium owner in Hawaii. The market for this proved to be lucrative, so Neeleman set up a partnership with an airline to create budget travel packages between Los Angeles and Honolulu. In time, the venture was bringing in $6,000,000 in sales. Leaving college to pursue his successful enterprise, the airline he was working with suddenly folded in 1982, and he lost all his money and had to close down the business.
Some two years later, Neeleman co-founded Morris Air with June Morris, the owner of the largest travel agency in Utah. Working together, Neeleman restarted his Hawaiian travel package business and initiated chartered flights from Salt Lake City to Hawaii. In 1993 Southwest Airlines acquired Morris Air and Neeleman signed a ‘non-compete’ clause with Southwest where he could not work for any other airline for five years. He created a touch screen airline reservation system called Open Skies, which was bought by Hewlett Packard in 1999 and renamed, Navitaire. At this time, he co-founded WestJet, a successful Canadian Airline.
After his non-compete agreement was up, Neeleman launched the airline he had always envisioned, JetBlue, a low-cost carrier offering economy travelers the same kind of high-quality air travel experience previously reserved on high ticket priced airlines. Neeleman assumed a ‘hands-on’ approach of service…often boarding JetBlue flights, handing out snacks, cleaning the aircraft, and collecting tickets at departure gates. Passengers would have a TV in every seat, satellite radio, new underserved routes to choose from, and a convenient computerized ticketless reservation system with a strong emphasis on on-time flight performance. With its low fares and amenities, JetBlue enjoyed tremendous popularity and high customer satisfaction ratings. However, in 2007, a relentless ice storm created major winter travel disruptions in the Northeast, leaving many passengers stranded aboard JetBlue flights for hours. In addition, a flawed system of communication within the airline’s management worsened the situation and generated poor publicity. Later, Neeleman was asked by the board to step down from his position as the airline’s CEO.
In 2008, Neeleman founded a new airline called Azul Brazilian Airlines. Azul, which is Portuguese for ‘blue’ would serve cities in Brazil with little or no air connectivity. The airline would follow the same ideology of passenger air travel as JetBlue. In 2013, Azul finished the year with over 5 billion BRL and was Brazil’s third-largest airline.
Neeleman recently shared his thoughts with Metropolitan Airport News on the building of his incredible career by completely interrupting the aviation industry with visionary, out-of-the-box thinking that has resulted in new airlines. He reflected upon whether his model for innovation would work in other industries. “I don’t consider myself a visionary. I think I’m just good at seeing opportunities. There’s no reason to launch an airline because you’ve always wanted to have one, or out of ego or anything like that. Like any other industry, I suppose you have to identify what’s missing and create something that fills that need. That strategy probably works in just about every industry, though.”
In discussing what type of business outside of aviation would be alluring to him, Neeleman said, “Unlike most industries, the airline industry has huge publicly-available data showing consumer demand and behavior – and where a new service is required. I suppose medicine probably also has that kind of research, but I don’t know that I’d make a great doctor or pharmacist. I have no idea what I’d be doing if not for airlines. That’s all I’ve ever known.”
In June 2018, David Neeleman announced his plans for a new US airline called Breeze Airways, providing non-stop service between underserved routes across the United States at affordable fares. Breeze Airways made its national debut in May 2021 with inaugural flights from Bradley International Airport, and in February 2022, Breeze Airways added eight new routes from Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP) and Palm Beach International Airport (PBI).
With the launch of Breeze Airways, the lure of the airline business continues for Neeleman.
“I’ve always loved the airline industry. Ever since I was a little kid, I think it just gets in your blood. Breeze is my fifth airline start-up, and I love it as much as my first. But I didn’t do it because I wanted to create a fifth airline; that’s the fastest fail to go broke. Looking at the United States in the last decade and especially in the last few years – secondary and tertiary markets have lost a lot of services. And when you see how many people are having to fly through hubs – and paying top dollar for it too- you can change their lives by adding non-stop service at a very affordable price.”
In the New York Metropolitan area, Breeze Airways has added New York’s Long Island MacArthur (ISP) airport and Westchester (HPN) to its routes. Its MacArthur/ISP routes to Norfolk and Charleston are doing well, and Breeze recently announced seven non-stop destinations from Westchester. “We always plan on adding more flights and destinations from all our gateways, as long as people are flying with us. Naturally, the cities with the most demand get the most routes,” said Neeleman.
Additionally, Breeze has 80 A220s on the way, with options for 40 more, “So we’ll be adding destinations for many, many years to come,” he added.
As Breeze hits its first-year anniversary, now servicing Islip and Westchester this summer, the airline looks forward to servicing New York from those airports for a good long time. On the long-term horizon, international routes will be introduced but will not be for a while. We’re not a flag carrier at this stage,” says Neeleman, “and we have lots of opportunities in the short term with our domestic route network.”
In readying the next generation of aviation professionals in our community, especially in terms of pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians, Breeze has partnered with the ATP Flight School, the nation’s largest, to provide ATP graduates with a streamlined pathway to a First Officer position with the airline. Breeze’s Embark program allows them to recruit from ATP’s student and instructor population of 2,300 pilots while providing their graduates with more opportunities for career progression. Eligible ATP instructors can interview with Breeze at 500 hours total time. Successful applicants receive a conditional job offer and mentoring from Breeze airline pilots while gaining flight experience. “Once they reach 1,500 hours of flight time, instructors transition to Breeze as Embraer 190 First officers after completing the Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program with ATP,” said Neeleman.
While the pandemic delayed the launch of Breeze Airways and its choice of fleet, as other airlines shrank service, especially in secondary and tertiary markets, that ultimately served to add routes to Breeze’s consideration list. Breeze has thirteen Embraer 190s and six A220s, with another 74 on the way. The deciding factor in building the fleet with Embraer over Boeing and Airbus was looking at the market need and identifying which aircraft is best suited to each mission. Neeleman said, “The E-jets are great for routes that are about two hours flight or less. The A220s are flight longer than that, particularly the 5-hour transcons.”
Operating in the aviation industry and airport sectors has presented a challenge for Breeze in terms of the worker shortage, but the airline has been successful in finding all the Team Members it needs. “With all the new planes coming in the next six years, our pilot need will probably continue to be our most important concern, but we’re sourcing great candidates from a variety of channels,” Neeleman said.
With airlines notoriously competitive to capture flyers, what will set Breeze apart from other airlines out there? Neeleman asserted, “We’re nice! I don’t mean to sound facetious, but that’s our brand essence and our customer service focus. I mean, we have 80 brand new A220s on the way, 36 First Class seats, and low, low fares. That alone would set any airline apart, but when the focus is being on nice, that’s unstoppable.”