MIAMI — Marty St. George has been JetBlue’s executive vice president – commercial & planning since February 2015. In that job, he is responsible for the airline’s network planning, marketing, sales and revenue. He joined JetBlue in July 2006 as vice president of planning, and also served as senior vice president – commercial, and senior vice president – marketing and commercial strategy.
Before coming to JetBlue, St. George was the managing director of marketing for United Airlines, where he oversaw marketing planning, product development and brand management. He also worked as senior director – marketing for US Airways, where he led the airline’s marketing planning and product development functions.
St. George spoke to Airways about expanding its focus cities, the success of Mint, the JetBlue fleet and its future in long-haul flying.
Airways: How has working at JetBlue been different than the other airlines that you worked at in your career?
Marty St. George: It has been really great to be at a place that’s so customer focused. And when we make decisions, the customer actually gets a vote through our research and analysis.
The second thing is there are so many companies that say they have a corporate mission and corporate values. But very few of them can actually get evidence of the mission and values affecting their day to day lives. At JetBlue, everyone knows the mission and values.
If you don’t know them you cannot get hired here. You actually hear the missions that are discussed every week in your job. It’s not a place where there’s just a picture on a wall or a nice graphic and that’s really different. And what’s nice about that is it actually creates a common language.
JetBlue has six focus cities: New York JFK, Boston, Long Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and San Juan. There’s been some expansion, but when will we see more cities and expansion in those cities?
First, we’re using all our slots in New York. We took out our [Embraer] 190s there and [now use Airbus] 320s and 321s. So that’s how we grow in New York. We’re always out there looking to acquire slots, but that’s a much slower process than growth in non-constraint cities.
Look at Boston – we announced Boston would have 125 daily flights and we now have 140 this month, and it will be 150 by next year. I want to start focusing on the other cities once I finish the ones that we have. The analogy I use is that I’ve got six houses under construction and some of them are done and some of them are close to being done.
I don’t want to start building the seventh house while I’m still finishing on the third house. But when we have time sensitive opportunities like Reagan Washington National Airport, we’ll move stuff up on the list.
Now that some time has passed, how have travelers accepted the Blue, Blue Plus and Blue Flex fares introduced back in 2014?
In November 2014 we talked about fare options at Investor Day and we gave them numbers on how much it was going to be worth. We said we’d hit our numbers in 2016 and we actually hit them in 2015. So the answer is it was better than we thought it would be. We put in fare options and gave peoples these bundles, because we put other things in the bundle besides just the bag.
Mint has been an overwhelming success. What has JetBlue learned by adding this premium product to its mix?
We were nervous at first, because our customers liked the egalitarian nature of the airline, and that everyone was treated the same. We were also concerned about our crew members, because they are trained to treat everyone great.
I think it’s important to mention that it wasn’t just the people who buy Mint who get a good experience. The people at the back of the airplane got a better product too. They got the marketplace [snack bar], they got Live TV with 100 channels, they got power outlets and a much bigger screen. Customers totally got that and our crew members got it too.
JetBlue has added 12 Mint destinations. How did you decide which destinations were going to get the service?
We’ve had plans for additional airplanes with Mint in the works for a long time. When we announced the New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco [Mint] route, we blew the doors off the forecasts we did. When we originally launched New York, we had some corporate business, but not a lot because we were fundamentally a leisure airline.
But when we start talking in New York about Mint, the corporate accounts that we served said they weren’t interested because their people were not flying in business class; they were flying coach. We pointed out that there are times when a Mint seat is cheaper than a full-fare coach on United or American.
Now the corporate accounts love it. And a year and a half ago, some of the corporate accounts in Boston said some of our customers are flying down to New York just to get on Mint. We should talk about whether you would ever fly it out of Boston. We’re getting similar requests from other cities. My view of this is [Mint in] Vegas will be no problem and Seattle will be no problem. We’re very excited about what’s going to happen with us.
What really enables all this and this is the incredible economics on the [Airbus] 321. It’s pretty cheap to fly the A321. I’ve got 160 seats on the A321, but I added 16 premium seats at that are coming at four times the fare of a coach seat.
JetBlue has a list of interline partners that reads like a who’s who of global airlines. How do you decide which airlines to partner with?
We were lucky in that our most important focus city is also one of the two most important international destinations in the United States. So if you’re an international airline and you’re flying to the U.S., you’re probably going to be flying to New York, so we pretty much have everybody to pick from.
Because our airline structure is very different than what the typical legacy carriers do. So if I have a deal with [Brazil’s] Azul in New York, they get a pro-rate on flights from JFK to Buffalo. So from that perspective, I’ll take all the passengers. It’s very different from the model we see in the alliance world, which has all sorts of geopolitics. I don’t need seats from Frankfurt to Munich, so there’s no back scratching.
One of the things that make it work incredibly well is that carriers like us tend to have a relatively close-end booking curve, while transoceanic flying has a really far off booking curve. So if you’re Emirates, which is an extremely important partner for JetBlue, it generates a lot of customers off of JetBlue every day. And that’s not just in New York, but also Boston.
Looking at the JetBlue fleet, has the Embraer E190 lived up to what JetBlue expected? And do you still see a role for that size aircraft in your network?
The [Embraer] E190 is incredibly important for us on our short- and medium-haul flying. Take a market like Boston. Some of these markets like Boston to Buffalo or Raleigh are strong business markets where customers expect a certain level of frequency. It would be tough to fill 900 seats to Buffalo with an A320. But with 500 to 600 seats, I have a lot better shot at filling them, so the E190 has been very valuable to us.
It’s not going anywhere. If somebody wants to come in and make a killer offer, we’d never say no. We’ll sell anything for the right price. Market interest in the E190 has been increasing a lot. I’ve gotten calls from people that say, `Hey if you want to sell some of these, we’re interested.’ We’re happy with the fleet size that we have right now. But it is interesting that we do have people calling us asking about the airplane.
Aside from the application to fly to Cuba, how is your presence down in the Caribbean still evolving?
I think we have a lot more growth in the Caribbean, and I’ll broaden to Latin America in general. In the Caribbean, we have a very consistent pattern as far as how we grow there. It’s almost always stacked with our New York services. New York is a mix of beach and [visiting friends and relatives] traffic because there’s a strong group that wants to go back and forth.
After that, we started Boston on the weekends. and then Boston got up to daily, and from my picture it will end up being really, really strong.
I think there a lot of places from Fort Lauderdale where we have a lot of upside, as far as having more Caribbean destinations. And I feel the same way about Orlando. I think once we get the Fort Lauderdale built out, we will have great success in Orlando. There’s a lot of growth opportunities down there.
Assume that you had the aircraft you needed on property. Would you look more at expanding further into South America or even possibly opening flights between the U.S. and Europe?
I think everything is on the table right now with respect to opportunities. I think with the current fleet types we have right now, Europe is not really in the mix. I talk about the 321LR. I think the most important thing for us is that we’ve got to spend quality time working with Airbus on this, making sure that we’re at an agreement on what the range of the airplane is.
I love Airbus and I’ve worked with them for many years. But there’s not a manufacturer out there that does not overstate the range of their airplanes. It’s our responsibility to make sure that happens as we look at it. I think this will be a great opportunity.
Gathering customer data is an increasing part of how companies are doing business. How do you feel about the way JetBlue is using its customer data?
If anyone in my job tells you they’re satisfied with what they’re doing, they’re lying. We use an incredible amount of customer data and we do a lot of research. We’re also doing a lot of customer modeling. But every key commercial officer in any company, not just an airline, will go and talk to their counterparts and say ‘Oh god, I felt like I was good and now I find somebody else doing too many things that I’m missing.’
There are the big system that you’ll see at a legacy airline, but buying these systems are actually pretty expensive. For us, we’ve done more with our homegrown system, and we’ve been very lucky and diligent in getting data designs in our company. I use this phrase all the time: ‘The most important thing in data modeling is someone who can ask good questions. And the only way to ask good questions is to have that innate curiosity of how customers behave and try to find patterns.’
What roles do branding and advertising play for JetBlue in this era of search engines and social media?
Well I think they’re all important. One thing about JetBlue is that we don’t take it for granted that everybody knows who we are. And it’s tough for us because we’re all insiders and know the company very well.
We all love it we feel like if you’ve flown JetBlue before, you love it. But I don’t want to underestimate the fact that we’re still a 5 percent player in this market. Easily there’s a lot more people that never flown us than people who have flown us.
We cannot take it for granted that people get us. So we still do brand advertising, and the majority of our money is spent online. But I still think that there’s room for everything, so that’s where social media is great. I don’t think any one of these channels has the ability to kick out other one.
When we changed ad agencies, I told them that I have one rule – we don’t do TV. They said, `What do you mean you don’t do TV? I said I don’t do TV because it’s expensive. We’re still a regional brand, so we can’t do national TV. Because when you do national TV, you buy ratings in places like Atlanta and Minneapolis, where we don’t fly to.
They came back to us a year and a half later with several stats of the original campaign and said, `You know what will make it a lot better? TV.’ I still didn’t agree. So we did and they were absolutely right. They basically shamed me into doing it. But they did it with numbers. Now that being the case, we still do not do national advertising. But we definitely do local advertising in our focus cities.