JetBlue CEO: Long Beach brouhaha was not inadvertent

Below is a portion of Mutzabaugh?s interview with JetBlue?s Barger in a question-and-answer format. In it, Barger discusses the airline?s plans for Long Beach and the role of ?new media.?

Ben Mutzabaugh:Let's talk about Long Beach. You created quite a stir – I assume inadvertently – when you talked to Brett Snyder (author of The Cranky Flier aviation blog) about JetBlue's facilities at the Long Beach Airport. I think the way that the Long Beach mayor and city council reacted to your comments – because they came in a blog – caught a lot of people off guard. Were you surprised at the reaction of the Long Beach officials when your comments about Long Beach were posted on The Cranky Flier blog?

David Barger:I was surprised, in a positive way. But, let me say as a correction, it wasn't inadvertent. We spent time with USA TODAY and with The Wall Street Journal. And also – with what (I think) is very real – social media, (including) Brett and The Cranky Flier blog. We spent an hour together. We spent hours together with (USA TODAY) and also with The Wall Street Journal out at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium.

Where I was surprised is how sensitive the issue evidently was when it became magnified in the city of Long Beach and in the L.A. Basin. And I think in a positive way. JetBlue is committed to the city of Long Beach, but the commitments have been very disappointing in seeing (some of those commitments) come to life. It's (passenger) access to the airport. It's parking structures. It's gate-hold facilities.

(The airport) a historic landmark, much like the building we're in today (at New York JFK). We respect that. We get that. But I don't think the temporary trailers are the right footprint for an airline that literally (brings) 5,000-plus customers per day in and out of that facility. So, I was surprised at just how magnified it became in the city. I was very pleased with that.

Mutzabaugh: And that's because you feel like you've been patient in waiting for improvements and now you're ready to see results?

Barger:I think we've been very patient. And I think we've been very good citizens about it (at Long Beach). But with the mayor and the city council and the airport management team, I'm pleased that it's on everybody's radar screen in a positive way.

We're sitting in a recession. In good times, I think it's relatively easy to take businesses that are in your community for granted. But, in a recession, when you look at an airline that is profitable ... an airline that is successful (with) an award-winning brand, and – oh, by the way – the trickle down every time 150 passengers come off an airplane, let alone the 600-plus crewmembers that live in that base that are paying taxes into the community ... boy, don't take that for granted.

Mutzabaugh:One of the things that I found most intriguing about the way that all played out is the role that a "new media" source like The Cranky Flier had. I almost got the impression that if the Long Beach officials had read the same comments in USA TODAY or The Wall Street Journal, their reaction would have been different. But when your comments were quoted in a blog – then subsequently picked up by the L.A. Times and the Long Beach Press-Telegram– it seemed like it raised some alarm bells that may not have gone off if it had first surfaced in a mainstream media source. Did you sense any of that?

Barger: Yes. My sense is that really – not just in America – but the world there's what's known as mainstream media. But, new social media, it's there. It's real-time.

I think when there was a challenge to the blog – not my comment, but somebody else's regarding (blog author Snyder's credibility as) a "professional" – I think that's a very, very harsh comment. I mean it's (The Cranky Flier) real.

Mutzabaugh:Of course, in the blogosphere, there are blogs that run the gamut of journalistic integrity. But The Cranky Flier is one that's very well respected and has a good reputation. What's your perspective?

Barger:I believe so. And, by the way, I think whether it's written format or TV or radio, I think there would also be others who would say some (of those outlets) are also less professional (than others).

But this was not happenstance with Brett. We've spent time with Brett and The Cranky Flier in the past. We'll see what happens now in terms of talk becoming reality (at Long Beach Airport).

Mutzabaugh:Is there a timeline that you have in mind for when you need to see something happen at Long Beach?

Barger:Years ago.

Mutzabaugh:So, you're saying Long Beach really needs to come through with at least a good-faith effort to start on what you've been expecting.

Barger: We really need to see that. We do. And June 17, we're cutting the ribbon on service to LAX … in addition to Burbank. It's a multi-airport strategy across the L.A. Basin. And (our) airplanes can move to different parts of that network.

Mutzabaugh:To be clear, and to pick up on what you said to The Cranky Flier, would you really consider pulling out of Long Beach? Many suggested maybe those comments were just a ploy to increase your leverage in the situation. But, would JetBlue really do that?

Barger: I think we are hopeful with activity out of the city of Long Beach. At the same time, we wouldn't hesitate to move airplanes throughout the region … or across our network.

The ground experience has to match the in-flight experience. In the same time that we have designed, financed and built a 640,000 square-foot terminal in New York, we're still waiting for a parking deck to finally start to take place in the city of Long Beach.

So, very seriously, from the standpoint (that) the commitment was years ago. The customer experience today? Not only do they demand better, but they deserve better. And so do the crewmembers. (They deserve) an appropriate ground experience.