Neeleman, an American of Dutch descent, was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Presumably his father was temporarily stationed there. While he was a youngster, the family moved to Cottonwoods, Utah, where he attended Brighton High School. Following high school, he attended the University of Utah for three years, and then dropped out of school, apparently without graduating. As a Mormon youth, he served the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a missionary in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Following his missionary work, it became clear that Neeleman was interested in becoming an entrepreneur. And as a result, he became the cofounder of Morris Air, with June Morris, in Salt Lake City, Utah. From 1984 to 1988, he served as Executive Vice President of Morris Air, and in 1988 he became the President of Morris Air. In 1993, Morris Air was acquired by Southwest Airlines, and Neeleman remained as Morris Air’s President until 1994. While at Southwest Airlines, Neeleman also worked on Southwest’s executive planning committee.
Between 1994 and 1998, Neeleman was the Chief Executive Officer of Open Skies, an airline reservation and check-in systems company, later acquired by Hewlett Packard. During that time period, he also worked with Westjet, another start-up airline.
JetBlue, a new start-up airline with a tint of luxury, was founded in 1998 by Neeleman. The premise of the new airline was low cost operation but with a luxurious feel for the client, the passenger. The company started out with brand new Airbus jets, equipped with leather seats and a small television screen for each passenger mounted in the back of the forward seat. In comparison with what was then available in the market place, the service and flight experience provided by JetBlue was luxurious, and the public responded quickly and enthusiastically. Initially, the service was limited to only a few markets. JetBlue’s major hub was JFK Airport in New York City, and service was provided to major cities with potentially strong traffic to and from New York City.
During its initial first few years, JetBlue became the model of service quality, but some of its competitors, including the major airlines, began to imitate its services, and competition strengthened as JetBlue expanded to more destinations. By the end of 2006, JetBlue had become a modest size air carrier with close to 100 planes, and its service had expanded to numerous destinations. Running a large air carrier requires different skills, different approaches, and a larger and deeper management organization, than running a small upstart carrier. Unfortunately, Neeleman’s only management experience running an airline had been with small upstart carriers.
Early in February 2007, a major snow storm hit New York City, causing extensive disruption in air traffic operations. Most of the older and more experienced airlines were able to cope with it reasonably well. JetBlue, on the other hand, was unprepared, and the February snow storm became a night mare for JetBlue. Its management infrastructure was unable to handle and cope with it. Keep in mind, JFK airport was still JetBlue’s major hub. JetBlue planes loaded with passengers were sitting on the tarmac and waiting on the jet ways and runways of the airport for hours and, in some cases for as long as 8 hours. And the problem could not be solved for several days. It became a major embarrassment for Jet Blue, and its management was faulted, and apparently correctly so, because its management structure had not grown with the growth of the carrier’s air transportation operations. And Neeleman, as JetBlue’s Chief Executive Officer, got the blame. The result was that JetBlue’s executive board decided to replace Neeleman with JetBlue’s Chief Operations Officer, Dave Barger. Neeleman, as one of Jet Blue’s major stockholders was retained as its non-executive Board Chairman.
The story of David Neeleman reveals a major management lesson, that managing a small upstart company does not equip someone to manage major operations many times the size of the upstart. Or a successful entrepreneur is not automatically qualified to become a successful manager of a major company. Undoubtedly, David Neeleman learned his lesson, and will use what he learned in any of his future endeavors.
During the period from 2009 to 2010, Neeleman became again interested in forming a new airline. But this time it would not be in the United States. He chose Brazil as the country where he wanted to establish another airline, similar to JetBlue, the American airline he founded. as of early 2011, there was little information on how the new Brazilian JetBlue was doing.
David Neeleman is married to his wife Vicky, and the couple resides in New Canaan, Connecticut. The couple has nine children, spread out over a nine year period.
David Neeleman, http://www.nndb.com/people/817/000031724/
JetBlue’s C.E.O. Is “Mortified” After Flyers Are Stranded,http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/19/business/19jetblue.html
David Neeleman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Neeleman
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