David Neeleman is good at launching airlines.
“That’s what I do,” he said.
His track record isn’t as strong to carry out the operations, but he hopes for the success of his new venture, Breeze Airwaysis a sign that the worst is behind him.
Based in Utah, the airline launched in May with two nonstop flights from Charleston, the largest of its five bases in the United States. The airport has been steadily adding routes throughout the year, expanding to its 28 cities from March.
“When I was in Charleston last May, I was like, ‘There’s a lot of people who are going to be in Charleston this year who have no idea yet,'” Neeleman said.
The airline started with flights from Charleston International Airport in Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut, cities that had never had direct connections before. In the summer, five more routes were added. In December, two more. This month, four more, including the first nonstop flight from the holy city to San Francisco.
Today, 17 routes offer direct flights to and from CHS in markets previously untapped by any other airline.
“We look at the traffic and we see what the travel patterns are. A lot of people fly between two cities where there’s no nonstop service, and we know there’s a market there,” Neeleman said.
Neeleman believes Charleston’s historic nature, food and people have made the airline’s partnership with the city and its airport a success.
“When I was on the flight from Islip, a lot of people got off the plane and said, ‘We don’t need to connect to Baltimore anymore. They were coming South West and connect through Baltimore,” he said. “There’s just a huge community of interest between New York and Charleston.”
Neeleman was born in Brazil, when his father was temporarily stationed there for work, but was raised in the United States. Today he lives in Utah, where he began his career as a commercial airline entrepreneur. At the age of 24, Neeleman chartered flights, eventually growing his business into his first airline, Morris Air.
He ran the company for 10 years before selling it to Southwest Airlines for $130 million. Neeleman remained chairman of Morris Air and also served on Southwest’s executive planning committee. Just months after the acquisition in 1994, Neeleman parted ways with Southwest, agreeing to a five-year non-compete clause. While he waited, he headed north to Canada where he helped start another airline, WestJet. At the same time, he served as CEO of Open Skies, an airline reservation and check-in systems company later acquired by Hewlett-Packard.
When the timer struck in 1999, Neeleman incorporated JetBlue, which was officially founded in February of the same year. The pattern repeated itself years later when Neeleman also lost control of that company. A blizzard in February 2007 revealed a breakdown in airline operations, resulting in nearly 1,000 canceled flights in five days, customers stranded on planes and company shares plummeting 25% from a peak 52 weeks, according to CNBC. On May 10, Neeleman was replaced as CEO of JetBlue by David Barger.
“It totally motivated me,” Neeleman said. “When I left JetBlue, I went to my home country and started an airline there and it became the biggest airline in Brazil.”
In operation for 12 years, Azul Brazilian Airlines now transports more than 100,000 people on 800 daily flights.
Neeleman said the venture was a tremendous opportunity that would never have happened had he not parted ways with JetBlue.
“You learn something every time you start a new airline…I learned a lot from Brazil about exclusive markets,” he said. “Eighty percent of our 130 cities that we serve there don’t have ongoing competition. So it works much better than having to fight people, especially when the going gets tough.
Neeleman said he avoids airports where major airlines fly and instead chooses markets like San Bernadino, Calif., Huntsville, Ala., and Akron, Ohio.
The airline’s entrepreneurial background also taught him the importance of better communicating with the board and hiring the right operations team.
“There are certain principles you have to follow and arrangements you have to make and there are always things happening,” Neeleman said. “But great leadership teams can really get you through tough times.”
He sees Breeze growing from here, adding more connections in Charleston, including this month Syracuse, NY, Fort Myers, FL, and Las Vegas, FL. There are also other cities to the west that Breeze can serve from Charleston, and Neeleman hopes to announce those soon.
“We knew Charleston was going to be a great place to go, but it even surprises us,” he said.
Contact Teri Errico Griffis at 843-849-3144.