A conversation with Breeze Airways founder David Neeleman

PhocusWire, a sister publication of Travel Weekly, interviewed airline industry veteran David Neeleman, who launched Breeze Airways in May 2021, making it his fifth commercial airline startup along with Morris Air, WestJet, JetBlue and Azul. Headquartered in Utah, Breeze Airways is a low-cost carrier that provides nonstop service between cities in the U.S. that were previously only accessible with connecting flights.

Q: What is your reaction to the Frontier/Spirit merger announced yesterday? And how does this impact your strategy for Breeze?

A: It has no impact on us. Breeze doesn’t fly where other airlines already go. Ninety-five percent of our routes have no nonstop competition. We’ll just continue to connect travelers in cities without existing service.

Q: You launched Breeze Airways flights in May of last year. Since then what have been have been the biggest challenges — and, conversely, has anything surprised you in a positive sense?

A: Well, Covid has been the biggest challenge, of course, because it spawns 100 more challenges with its impact on hiring, scheduling, demand, the supply chain and so on. There was a lot of questioning as to why we’d even start an airline in a pandemic. Of course, our plans were set long before Covid. It certainly didn’t stop us, but it did slow us down a little and delayed our launch. Looking ahead, we’re in a great place to keep expanding as demand ramps up again.

What’s surprised me? Maybe just that you can build a great team — and an airline — in a virtual “Zoom” environment!

Q: How are you determining when and where to add service?

A: I think there’s a general assumption that a lot of it is done with darts on a map. But I assure you, that’s not the case. There are literally hundreds of city pairs we’re constantly ranking and prioritizing. There’s a lot of data available that shows where people are flying as they connect through hubs. That’s our audience.

Breeze’s mission is to connect secondary markets with nonstop service and really low prices. That’s how we’ll build our business. More than 95% of our routes today have no nonstop competition. In that way, Breeze gets you there twice as fast, for about half the cost.

Q: The airline’s tag line is “Seriously Nice.” What does that mean to you in terms of customer experience?

A: You know, it’s not hard to be nice. It’s not rocket science. But what a difference it makes. When you think of all the investment that goes into a fleet of new aircraft, first-class seats, inflight entertainment technology, you name it, it’s still that feeling when someone is genuinely nice that’s priceless. When problems arise, we empower our team members to make things right for our guests. And it’s that human connection people remember and turns them into repeat customers.

Q: I also read in an interview that you said, “Breeze is a technology company that just happens to fly airplanes.” Explain to us more about how you are using technology now and how it may evolve in the future?

A: Absolutely. The human connection is so important, but technology that makes booking or changing travel frictionless and predicts what guests want is a different kind of connection but just as important.

Breeze doesn’t have a toll-free call center for example — which can be a difficult concept for some people to get used to. But have you ever been able to call an airline in the last few years and get someone on the phone within 15 minutes and have your issue resolved in an appropriate amount of time? It’s more likely a three- or four-hour wait, or a “courtesy call-back” that comes in the middle of the night.

At Breeze, we use text and Messenger to respond to guests, and the average wait time and full issue resolution averages between 15 and 20 minutes. Once you experience that, you’re never going to call an airline ever again. That’s just one example, but starting fresh last year, we’ve been able to use all the latest technology across the airline to make everything faster and easier for guests. And there’s much more to come.

Q: Some carriers go for a direct-only policy initially and then, like Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe, switch to including GDSs as a channel. How have you determined your distribution strategy?

A: We’ve chosen to go direct not only as a business model but also because we’re a clean slate on a lot of our technology and the GDS world doesn’t fit in with that technology yet. As the GDS world continues to evolve, that may change for Breeze, but we aren’t looking to change our business model just to fit them.

Q: And what are your thoughts on the future of distribution and specifically NDC?

A: On the future of NDC, I would say it’s been talked about for a long time and taken a while to get to this point, so we’ll continue to monitor and see if it ever aligns with our distribution ideas.

Q: What still needs to be fixed in the air travel industry?

A: That’s a big question. I’ll let the industry answer that. We’re just focused on anticipating our guests’ next needs, and building the best airline we can during a pretty complicated time.

Q: Currently Breeze’s retailing options include options to purchase seats and bags. Do you have any plans to add more ancillary products?

A: Absolutely. We’ve only just started with big plans ahead. Lots of news to come on that.

Q: Breeze has a fairly straightforward loyalty program, known as BreezePoints, that awards travel credits based on a percentage of the fare and ancillary purchases. Those credits can be redeemed on flight and ancillary purchases. Do you have any plans to expand that, for example with partnerships to open more options to earn and burn points? Or is it less relevant for Breeze since you don’t have as much competition on your routes?

A: Of course, again we’re only eight months old. We’ll be sharing plans for an enhanced loyalty program, which will surprise people with its innovation. But I can’t talk about that yet.

Q: Several airlines have announced efforts to become carbon-neutral, including JetBlue which has pledged to get there by 2040. What do you think airlines can — and should — be doing regarding sustainability?

A: As a startup during Covid, we need to be planning to be sustainable as a business, period. We’re not there yet, but it’s definitely a major focus.

Q: Breeze is your fifth airline. You’ve had tremendous success in your career and you are at an age when many people consider retiring. What motivates you to keep innovating?

A: I’ve always said that I don’t start airlines for fun or ego or for something to do. It’s always just if I see a need. Even before Covid, travelers in secondary markets were losing service, especially nonstops. The pandemic just exacerbated the problem. Breeze is needed, so it’s going to do really well. That’s my motivation.

This is my fifth startup but they’re certainly not cookie-cutter replicas of each other. Each is a product of the time — and the need — of when it was launched. And each updates the one before it with customer-centric products and services. That’s the exciting part.

Q: What would you say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses as a leader?

A: I think my greatest strength is in seeing opportunities where others don’t, and in coming up with ideas and strategies to make the most of them. My biggest weakness? Well, I’m kind of ADD so my time isn’t best-served on the details. I guess my other big strength is knowing who to hire. I truly believe Breeze has the best team in the industry, and it’s that bench strength that is going to keep the airline successful for many, many years to come.

Q: What advice do you have for young people interested building a career in the travel industry?

A: I think the best advice is to do what you love. Then it feels like a mission rather than a job. If the travel industry speaks to you, it’s a great career with untold demand. Just bring your A-game, your intuition, your empathy and innovation.

Source: PhocusWire

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