Being in the thick of operations and seeing crewmembers at work in the galleys and at the gates provide Joanna Geraghty, president and chief operating officer at JetBlue, with invaluable insights into the issues facing the company’s front line.
For the past few months, reporters have repeatedly asked Joanna Geraghty whether JetBlue will launch transatlantic flights. With routes between the United States’ busiest cities and an expanded winter network to the Caribbean to accommodate snowbird migration, the airline seems ripe to make the leap across the pond. But no matter how many times the question is asked, Geraghty, president and chief operating officer of JetBlue, does not budge on her answer.
“There’s no decision made on whether or not we will fly transatlantic. We are actively studying this possibility,” she says, for the umpteenth time. “If you look at what we were able to accomplish with our Mint experience and how we disrupted the premium space in the US – we think there’s a similar play [to be made with] transatlantic.”
Launched in 2014, the Mint experience has been positioned as business class at a lower cost, offering fully lie-flat seats, creative in-flight menus, unlimited snacks, fashionable amenity kits and free high-speed Wi-Fi. The service currently flies on 34 Airbus A321s, and with 13 more of the aircraft in a variety of configurations to be received in 2019, one can’t help but wonder if Mint will operate new nonstop routes abroad. But this is just one of the many things Geraghty has on her mind.
This past summer, Geraghty oversaw the transition of JetBlue’s flight catering facilities to a different supplier in three focus cities. She spent time visiting each facility to understand its air traffic patterns and truck delivery times, and to get a handle on which flights are preloaded in the night for the following morning – behind-the-scenes stuff that is “incredibly critical to on-time departure.” It was a move of such massive scale; “it was probably unheard of at an airline,” she says.
Another issue that’s come up: Ground and technical operations crewmembers shared they were uncomfortable wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts while working on the ramp in the heat. This led to a review of the employee tattoo policy, with Geraghty at the helm. Spending time in galleys and at the gates, getting face time with crewmembers, gives her insight into how to manage things at a higher level. “I’m trying to understand what the most pressing issues are for our crewmembers,” she says. “It enables me to really connect with what is going on and to understand the issues facing the front line, because that’s where our customers identify what’s important to them.”
The professional experiences that Geraghty racked up at JetBlue before landing her current role in May read as though she was already the understudy for the job, practicing her part on the sidelines until given the chance to perform. As EVP, Customer Experience; EVP, Chief People Officer; vice-president, associate general counsel; and director, Litigation and Regulatory Affairs, Geraghty has amassed nearly 14 years of experience at JetBlue – each job adding another piece to her understanding of the business. “I have a good sense, holistically, of how JetBlue functions, how the different pieces fit into making the organization work,” she says.
The passenger lawsuits over hot coffee spilled on an airplane, lost baggage and other accidents Geraghty encountered as a lawyer while representing airlines and airline manufacturers prior to joining JetBlue gave her a peek into the world of airline operations. “I became extremely interested, and that’s when I made the move to actually work for an airline,” she says. Her legal background shines at meetings where the discussion might be about launching a new initiative, to make flying more accessible for people with disabilities or introducing a new frontline procedure. “I have a good sense of the regulatory landscape behind those issues,” Geraghty says, and can “inject a dose of reality as to how something will actually translate in the field.”
IDENTIFYING THE HUMAN TOUCHPOINTS
While Geraghty gets to effect positive change at JetBlue, she also has to acknowledge company-wide efforts to slash $300 million in operational costs by 2020. Job cuts, announced this past July, primarily at the airline’s New York headquarters, were a part of this equation. “These decisions are never easy,” she says. “As an airline ages, there are national cost pressures, whether it’s maintenance or salaries or wages, because your workforce is just becoming more senior, and so we’re constantly making the right decisions for the company so that JetBlue can remain independent into its soon-to-be third decade.”
To keep costs low while also delivering a product that reflects what customers want, JetBlue is off-loading routine tasks that “don’t add a lot of value to the experience,” Geraghty says. For example, through self-service kiosks, travelers can now check in, tag their bags and drop them off on their own, and thanks to a recently launched website and mobile app, even rebook their own flight if it is canceled. “What adds value are those human touchpoints, and so we’re trying to make sure that we invest in them, while driving transactions to a lower-cost delivery method,” Geraghty says.
LEADING BY TEAMWORK
In Geraghty’s office, there’s a board pinned with messages from JetBlue customers about the kinds of “things you don’t hear about but provide a tremendous sense of inspiration and pride across the company,” she says. They remind her of what sets JetBlue apart from the rest of the airline industry and are a reflection of the team spirit at JetBlue, which came to light when the airline got involved in post-hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico last year.
“[The relief efforts were] largely driven by our incredibly passionate frontline crewmembers,” Geraghty says. They identified early on that there was a need to support the hurricane victims and volunteered to set up and manage supply facilities to distribute water, generators, cell phones, toiletries, baby clothes and diapers. “It’s those kinds of things that you can’t put a price tag on,” she says. “It’s more about the discretionary effort and doing right by others, and how that fuels what JetBlue is: an airline whose mission is to inspire humanity.” In turn, JetBlue was regarded as one of the leaders in that relief mission, offering guidance to other companies that wanted to lend a hand – from doctors to humanitarian relief organizations. “We were seen as that trusted company that you could go to to understand how to best support Puerto Rico.”
When asked what motivates her, Geraghty, who also sits on the board of the JetBlue Foundation and is a chairperson at Concern Worldwide US, says it’s the idea of hard work that was instilled in her at a young age. Having held an array of jobs – strawberry picker, salad bar chef, receptionist, flower shop associate – taught her how to understand a situation from a different perspective and to work with a variety of people. “Being part of an airline is all about working together,” she says. “If you have knowledge of one another’s role and can identify problems and opportunities not just within your own area but in other areas, too, it makes you a stronger leader across the organization.”
This article was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine