About Utah: Azul won't gouge, Neeleman promises

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 8:20 p.m. MDT

Utahn and Brazilian David Neeleman started Azul Airlines in Brazil in 2008.

Azul Airlines

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The World Cup arrives in Brazil this week, and does David Neeleman have a deal for you.

Fly anywhere Azul Airlines flies, including all 12 cities where the 2014 World Cup matches will be played, and he promises you will not pay over 999 reals (about $450 U.S.) for any trip.

It’s no idle promise, since Neeleman is the owner of Azul.

Azul is the fourth airline he’s launched: In 1984 he co-founded Morris Air here in Salt Lake City, which was sold to Southwest Airlines; in 1996 he co-founded WestJet, now Canada’s second-largest airline; in 1998 he founded JetBlue, now America’s fifth-largest airline, and all of which led up, after he left JetBlue in 2007, to his founding of Azul (a word that means “blue” in Portuguese) in 2008.

In less than six years, Azul has become Brazil’s third-largest airline with 25 million passengers a year — the fastest-growing airline in history.

In the aviation world, Neeleman is known as the wunderkind of airline startups.

Here in Utah, though, he’s known as the son of Gary and Rose Neeleman.

Gary is the lifelong newspaper broker/writer/executive, and Utah native, who was working in Brazil as a wire service correspondent for United Press International when Rose delivered David in a Sao Paulo hospital in 1959.

David was 5 years old when he left Brazil for Utah, by then a dual citizen fluent in English and Portuguese.

That dual-citizenship and language proficiency (he also served an LDS Church mission in Brazil) have served him well, enabling him to operate his Brazilian business as a bona fide native.

From the start, David’s objective with Azul was to make affordable airline travel available to the everyday Brazilian by greatly expanding flying routes within the country. Of the 103 cities the airline serves today, 45 of them didn’t have any airline service until Azul came around.

When the impending arrival of the World Cup brought with it stories about rampant price gouging by hotels, travel companies, airlines and other businesses that provide services to traveling soccer fans, Neeleman made his no-gouge “Nothing-over-999 real” promise.

Other airlines might charge double that and more, but not Azul.

It’s predicted that Azul could lose as much as 20 million reals (over $9 million) during the month-long Cup run.

No matter, says Neeleman.

“The government was doing a lot of criticizing of people gouging and we just thought, you know it’s a short-term cost to us but a long-term relationship builder. The government has been really appreciative and has invited the other airlines and hotels and others to do the same.”

He returned to Brazil six years ago to do business because “I wanted to make a difference in the country and try to give something back. I love Brazil. My biggest thing is the people. They’re just the nicest people ever. If you’ve ever had a Brazilian friend you know you have a friend for life.”

These days, David splits his time between New Canaan, Connecticut, where his wife, Vicki, and their family live full time, and Azul headquarters in Sao Paulo.

He’ll catch as many World Cup matches as he can during the next month, but not the opener between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo on Thursday, June 12.

He was invited to the opening, but his son Seth is playing in the Connecticut state high school lacrosse championships that same day so he’ll watch that instead. He says he hopes to watch the semis and finals in July.

Being Brazilian as well as American, he openly admits a bias for the home country team, which is favored to win the Cup.

A win would help dull the memory of the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, in 1950, and the national team let a 1-0 lead evaporate into a late 2-1 loss to Uruguay.

It is known in Brazil as “the Maracanazo,” a haunting reference to the stadium in Rio where the final match was played and where this year’s final will also take place.

“The whole country went into mourning,” says David. “When I was on my mission in 1978 that’s all they talked about and that was 28 years later. Now it’s 64 years and they’re still talking about it.”

A World Cup triumph would completely change the subject.

“I hope at the end everybody in Brazil is celebrating,” says the founder and owner of Azul Airlines. “And they buy lots of airline tickets after.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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