APEX TECH: Dr. Joe Leader sits down for a deep-dive one-on-one with JetBlue’s Mariya Stoyanova


APEX TECH 2023: Day Two – After delivering the opening remarks on day two of the APEX TECH, APEX/IFSA CEO Dr. Joe Leader sat down for a deep-dive chat about PaxEx, partnerships and JetBlue-isms like Cuddle Mode and JetFlix with JetBlue Director of Product Development, Mariya Stoyanova. 

DR. JOE LEADER: Thanks to each and every one of you for being here and making this APEX TECH very special. As we go into the second day we hope to provide what matters to you most as our members. This is the OG of apex. This is what makes us who we are.

As we look through the leading technologies content, revenue opportunities, innovation, shaping the aviation industry, our sessions today will look at the convergence of IFE and connectivity. We are living in probably one of the most exciting times in our industry, where you’re going to see massive changes in how things are done. Some of our airlines are already, although not very publicly, doing away with sneakernet and downloading all of their new in-flight entertainment content through connectivity without anyone having to come on board and swap that out on a monthly basis. 

You’re going to see what I would call dynamic content changes, where if something is underperforming it is replaced by something that would perform better with passengers, or a dynamic content change that we’ve seen done by several airlines offering up the newest content, through connectivity that is just now available on a particular date, rather than waiting for the first of the month. It’s a very exciting time and there are so many different possibilities that we’ll walk through today. 

With that being said, I would like to introduce Mariya Stoyanova, she is the Director of Product Development with JetBlue. 

MARIYA STOYANOVA: Thank you, Joe. Thank you for having me.

LEADER: Mariya has one of the coolest jobs in our industry, heading up all of the product and guest experience for JetBlue, you have really kept ahead of the game for JetBlue and it’s almost been a Mission Impossible-style job in terms of you get to go up against the odds and figure out how to provide more, for less, for your customers on an ongoing basis.

Just to remind everyone, you’re currently celebrating 10 years of free Viasat connectivity, an incredible milestone. Looking back at the December 2013 launch, Mariya, what drove such incredible innovation of free internet for everyone, 10 years ahead of the curve? If you really look at the JetBlue in-flight connectivity package and how it has evolved over the past decade, what has been the driving force behind your decisions? What have you changed and what has evolved? 

STOYANOVA: IFE has been part of our DNA since the year 2000 when we launched with leather seats and live TV screens in every seat. So, since the beginning, that has been part of what the customer experiences is for JetBlue. But even beyond that, at the very inception of the airline, our founder David Neeleman, wanted to create a customer service company that happens to fly an airplane. So, it’s essential for us to put the customer in the middle of everything that we do. 

And in terms of that mission and especially when we’re on the topic of connectivity, we evaluate the landscape constantly and we look to the future and try to anticipate our customers’ needs. We truly put their needs in the center of everything that we do. That being said when connectivity became an option for the airlines, we decided to actually wait it out a little bit because we didn’t want to provide our customers with something that was subpar in any way.

When we think about designing an experience, it’s all about not compromising in the air just because it’s in the air and replicating what you would experience on the ground in your living room. 

So we did have it planned but we decided not to jump on board with what was available in 2008. So in 2013, to your point, we embarked on an adventure with our partner Viasat, and jointly decided to take a huge leap and like, risk and create a truly cool, fast and free experience. Similar to what you’d get on the ground and we didn’t want to cut corners by any means. 

And as a customer service company, we wanted to deliver something very unique so we kind of set the bar high for ourselves. And in terms of evolution, we don’t necessarily hold ourselves up to the standards of the airline industry, we look beyond that at how other industries approach problem solving. I mean, it’s all about solving problems and, to your point, if you’re doing it for less, you need to get creative.

So I think where we’ve been very successful in the past is where we took the constraints that we had in place and we solved around them to actually bring innovation to the industry. And we can talk about what those features are, but for sure this has been our mission and we don’t really deviate from it.

The bar is high and the team is probably one of the all-star teams of the industry. I’m very proud to be their leader and it won’t happen without them. But I think what keeps us ahead is us not taking a pause or a breather. 

If you stop running, you stop innovating, then everything catches up. So we need to constantly be running and looking for the next opportunity and problem to solve

LEADER: You definitely have never stopped running! And one of the things that really impressed me is, if you look back in time, we’re talking about the beginning of streaming wars, as I call them. Now every airline is turning to a streaming partner and it’s probably one of the most underestimated ways to capture new customers. I can tell you several series that I’ve gotten hooked on when I saw three of them on my flight, and had to watch the rest of them at home. So it’s a great way to hook in a very affluent market. 

You didn’t really wait long to join those streaming wars. You were the first US airline to offer streaming in November 2015 with Amazon streaming. Now you have eight years of history behind you with a streaming partner and now you’re doing something much more in-depth.

You are moving this spring to a new streaming partner, with NBCUniversal, switching to Peacock. And it’s not just your streaming partner. Your JetBlue Mosaic members are able to get free Peacock Plus just for being a Mosaic member and then all of your JetBlue TrueBlue customers are able to get the discounted Peacock streaming platform. Tell us how did JetBlue start streaming so early? How is it working for you? And tell me about the evolution to your new partnership.

STOYANOVA: I’m fortunate enough to actually observe that evolution from the very beginning. I haven’t left my job because there’s always something exciting that we’re doing. It never ends and we keep pushing boundaries. So when we first launched the streaming partnership with Amazon that evolved into much more than a streaming partnership.

To my point earlier, we wanted to recreate the experience in the air and we look at partnerships as so much more than slapping a logo on the portal or the screen. It’s much more involved. We tried to integrate our partners we look for like-minded companies to actually create value for our customers, not only to offset costs, potentially and generate revenue, but also create unique packages and experiences for our customers that they can get only through JetBlue, on board and on the ground. 

And to your point, our TrueBlue loyalty program has been fundamental to actually engaging our customer base and delivering that value to everyone. It needs to be a win-win-win proposition for our customer partners and JetBlue and crafting those partnerships has been instrumental to the success that we achieved with Amazon. We got a good start with them and we learned a lot, so the Peacock partnership will be even more evolved and they’ll likely be even more surprises and delights for our TrueBlue customers.

Our loyalty program is becoming more and more important because that’s how we engage with the customers beyond just the in-flight journey. In terms of Peacock, we are still in the early stages of setting it up but they’re also New Yorkers, so, we’re like two birds in the sky! 

We definitely have a lot to do building up to the launch, sometime in spring/summer, whatever we decide, to start rolling out the benefits of the partnership. And it’s really it’s really great to see those partners actually approaching us.

We’re fortunate enough to have a very consistent experience across the board. We have TVs in every seat, we have screens in every seat, we have free and fast WiFi on 100% of our fleet and we have that captive audience at 35,000 feet, it’s like 30 million-plus customers. So that’s very valuable for partners. And they don’t overlook the value of our brand and their association with our brand. Amazon would never attach their name to someone that’s not as obsessed as we are about the customer experience.

LEADER: You definitely are obsessed with customer experience. I wanted to ask you about the new streaming partnership, streaming to loyalty members is a fun element to connect. What’s been the strategy of offering a free product to your highest Mosaic members and of you’re just a normal member, like myself, where do I get involved and what starts to loop me into to the Peacock environment?

STOYANOVA: We’re actually still building it up so I can’t disclose too much about it right now. We expect to have a broader communication for our customers and what the program entails hopefully around May. So, more to come!

LEADER: Great. I look forward to the announcement in May. Let’s get back to an APEX TECH-focused question. One of the things that I spoke about in the opener was how more airlines are moving to utilize their lightened bandwidth to bring new content on board.

You’re really in a great position because your aircraft all have access to incredible level of contents. It becomes a little bit more of a service level issue in terms of what type of equipment you have on board that’s able to receive updated content. Is it going to be part of your world of possibility with Peacock, instead of, for example, 1000 people on the same aircraft over one week, downloading the newest episode of Saturday Night Live? With licensing will you be able to download once and broadcast many times or what’s your desire to utilize the bandwidth in the partnership?

STOYANOVA: We’re definitely exploring how we can use it. There’s still some constraints and the bandwidth is still not as efficient and free as it needs to be in order for that concept to get onboard. But we’re toying with what we can do with this. For example, we actually use it to deploy some of our targeted advertising campaigns.

So we have a product with Thales called InFlyt 360 and a lot of our advertising onboard was kind of static and not really targeted or relevant to our customers. So in order for us to provide targeted advertising, generate revenue, and customize the advertising based on our Facebook profiles of the customers. We use that technology to drive that so, step by step we’re building towards what you’re alluding to, but we do want to make sure you’re doing the right thing the right way.

LEADER: Is it limited at all by the equipment you have on different aircraft?

STOYANOVA: Yeah, yes, of course. We do have some in our fleet that are still not as capable but the majority of them are there.

LEADER: It’s a nice thing to do as you continuously update your fleet. Let’s move from streaming to more traditional IFE. What do you do to make sure you’re really connecting with your customers as you’re choosing new in-flight entertainment?

STOYANOVA: We have fun meetings. We call it the editorial board at JetBlue, where we actually gather all kinds of people across the company to to provide feedback on what the content should be. We take insights not only from a diversity perspective, or relevance perspective, but also from the data and the trends that we see on the ground, so it’s a very involved process. We also decided a long time ago that we were gonna hook you up.

We don’t want to give you episode one through five from season eight. We’re going to give you the full season and we’ve had a lot of  success that way with previous streaming partners have been based on the fact that we provide more than is relevant and the team likes to call it the JetFlix experience. 

LEADER: The JetFlix experience. I like that!

STOYANOVA: Nowadays online, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the options, so, our goal is to actually curate the content onboard based on what our customers watch the most. We’ve also been exploring different categories like relaxation, meditation and mindfulness applications, all of which are doing so well onboard – probably from all of the anxiety associated with flying. We’ve also been getting more into education, we have a partnership with Duolingo currently.

So what’s better time to learn a language then while you’re flying and have nothing better to do? So, we’re exploring different categories and seeing what works best for our customers. We also definitely base everything on the customer insights and we keep a lens on what’s happening on the ground, and are very careful about what we put onboard. We also do benchmark to our peers as well, making sure that, at the very least, we’re comparable there as well.

LEADER: And speaking of the JetFlix experience, are you working towards the day where you can serve up content geared towards individual passenger, so they don’t have to scroll through hundreds of different titles?

STOYANOVA: For sure, personalization done right is great … but we don’t want to get creepy. There’s a fine line between what we data we use and how we use it to actually connect to the customer. But we have some fun JetBlue elements like something the team calls Cuddle Mode, where you can sync up your screens and press the play button at the same time.

LEADER: Cuddle mode. In love that! That’s one of the most special moments when I fly with my wife. Three, two, one…tap!

STOYANOVA: So we do have a lot on the roadmap and we’re definitely looking to roll out more, so, we’re testing a lot of new initiatives.

LEADER: I have a question about Cuddle Mode. If one of the passengers gets up to use the restroom, does the content stop or does it continue?

STOYANOVA: That’s a good question! I think it’s possible.

LEADER: That would be very cool. That’s where you kind of lose all synchronization in that one moment right there. Continuing on, one of the biggest advancements in personalization that JetBlue has made is in integrating food and beverage ordering into the IFE, so that you’re basically able to order almost a tapas style meal and choose each of the elements. What has the customer feedback been on integrating IFE personalization and food and beverage offerings? How has it helped you provide a customer experience edge?

STOYANOVA: I think most customers are actually really blown away because they don’t expect to see that onboard. I just got hungry. I don’t know about you! But this has been one of my favorite projects. And the Thales team was very patient, with us because we were very demanding. Whoever has worked with us, they know that we don’t push you, we push ourselves as well! can tell our business partners as well. So this is something that we iterated time and time again to get it right.

So the interesting thing about this partnership is it’s a little bit of a farm to tray table thing we worked on with our partner Dig. For those of you that are from Boston, this is kind of like a customize your own bowl type of concept made with locally-sourced ingredients. It’s really delicious! 

So, when you get on board the system greets you by your name or you can choose Guest mode and then you select your base and a protein. The mac and cheese is amazing! If you ever fly JetBlue to London, this is on the transatlantic flight that we launched now almost a couple of years ago. And the feedback has been tremendous. 

LEADER: One of the biggest misunderstandings about this is everyone thinks this is for business class. This is for economy class. So you’re getting to have your own tapas style meal in economy class. That is very special for all your customers.

STOYANOVA: The transatlantic experience was another time where we wanted to push the boundaries and offer choice and control to the customer knowing how you’ll like go into into your journey. It’s a long journey. It’s a stressful journey. We did a lot of research and control and choice are actually very important to our customers and they love it. They don’t expect it.

And honestly this is another instance where we used our constraints to our advantage. So as some of you might know we actually fly a narrowbody A321-LR across the pond, and single aisle is perceived to be a disadvantage to a wide body aircraft.

However in order to execute something as customized and intricate as the meal you see on on the slide, the narrow body is the way to do it. Because the crew has time with each individual customer, they can actually pay attention to them, they can curate the experience to them. So this is another example where we used a perceived disadvantage to our advantage.

LEADER: Speaking of using disadvantages to your advantage, have you looked at taking something like this and implementing it on longer haul domestic routes?

STOYANOVA: Yes, we are already looking. Actually, I think it’s already wide in our Mint Experience, domestic. 

LEADER: Now the harder question, as passenegers move towards the back of the cabin on a long haul do they ever get that disappointing message: ‘I’m sorry, we’re out of mac and cheese you only get the Lima beans!’

STOYANOVA: [Laughs] I don’t think we have Lima beans. So the system actually takes inventory so there is a very slim chance of this happening, because you see the screen where you choose your options? If one of the options is already selected the number of times that we have that item onboard it won’t be available.

LEADER: Wow, that’s great! At least there’s no bad news when they get to your row. That’s very important.

STOYANOVA: Yeah, for sure. Like Dr. Chi mentioned in his keynote yesterday: ‘Under promise and over deliver.’

LEADER: That’s it. And for your customers. What do you do to listen to their feedback and make sure that you’re under promising and over delivering?How do you incorporate their feedback into what you’re building out into your new technology onboard?

STOYANOVA: We try to use as many sources as possible. It’s not easy, back in the day when we first launched our award-winning Mint product I remember reading every single survey and being obsessed about every single detail and taking everything way too personally, but as we evolved that continues to be a source of information. The fact that our crew is very passionate about what they deliver also helps because they’re advocates for a better experience so they provide a lot of insights. 

When it comes to technology and connectivity there is a lot of biographical data that we use. We follow trends on the ground to match them up with what’s happening in the air as well, because sometimes data doesn’t necessarily tell the full story. So we do a lot of fly alongs and observations because observations are the best way to see how it actually works. And I always like to validate data with observation, for sure.

LEADER: The data that you receive is quite powerful and you have so much the way the analytics on board you can look at the analytics of who watched what how long it took for each interaction to select a meal. When people were struggling, if they had to hit something a few different times. How do you incorporate those types of analytics into your future choices?

STOYANOVA: So we learn from our customers, for sure and when it comes to the future, that helps us actually prioritize investment as well. That’s I think becoming more and more important. One of the areas that we’ve always been very selective about where is where we invest our efforts like IP, for example. It has been part of us and we’ve had an investment in it. And it’s been a priority.

The onboarding experience in general. For us, it’s an area where we want to win. The things that we do don’t necessarily like for example, we don’t do  lunches, so that’s where we chose not to invest. Data is also very helpful to understand customer behavior, what matters to them the most. So as we’re iterating, redesigning, refreshing or creating new experiences, we’re very targeted where we spend our money and effort. 

Honestly, I would rather not give you something than give you something that’s just not good. I would rather not offer you a subpar product because no product is better than a subpar product.

LEADER: I would agree with that entirely. Thank you so much for your openness and insight. Really, this has been great.

STOYANOVA: Thank you!