David Neeleman

WEST JORDAN — With horror stories of canceled flights and lost luggage, it is not the best of times to be in the airline industry.

"It's tough times," said David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways Corp.

Neeleman, who was born in Brazil but grew up in Utah, returned home Friday for a quick day trip to attend the Salt Lake Chamber's Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce meeting.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that airline delays are at their highest level in more than a decade, due to increased demand for air travel and an increase in weather-related delays. Complaints about mishandled and lost baggage are also on the rise, the agency reported.

JetBlue knows firsthand the problems foul weather can cause. Winter storms in February and March forced the airline to cancel some 1,700 flights out of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, costing JetBlue $41 million.

Neeleman stepped down as JetBlue's chief executive officer in the wake of the weather debacle, leaving a position he had held since founding the low-cost carrier in 1998.

"The timing was a little abrupt, but it was something the board thought it should do," Neeleman said Friday over lunch at the Grille from Ipanema, a Brazilian restaurant at Jordan Landing.

Neeleman said he is "still the face of JetBlue." Now, as chairman of the board, he meets weekly with new CEO Dave Barger to discuss strategy and long-term projects for the New York-based airline.

"It's been all right," Neeleman said of his new role, which removed him from the "day-to-day grind of trying to run an airline."

JetBlue's operations grew quickly when the airline first took to the skies in the late 1990s, thanks largely to its low-cost, no-frills approach. Neeleman has said the carrier may have grown too quickly, and the focus now is on stabilizing operations, he said Friday.

"We have to make sure we have a chance for success," Neeleman said.

After that, he said, the airline plans to add to its current schedule of nearly 600 daily flights. JetBlue recently added two new direct flights out of Salt Lake City, to San Francisco and San Diego, and has long flown directly to Long Beach and New York.

The company employs nearly 2,000 in its Utah reservation operations center.

In order to improve air travel in the United States, the country's air traffic control system must be modernized and airports must not be allowed to operate past their capacity, Neeleman said Friday. Moreover, he said, carriers must be held accountable to customers.

JetBlue instituted a customer bill of rights in the wake of its winter crisis, which, among other things, allows customers a full refund, credit or voucher if a flight is canceled within 12 hours of its departure time due to problems within JetBlue's control.


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