When I heard last week that David Neeleman was stepping down as head of JetBlue, I admit I was surprised - despite how worn down he seemed when I interviewed him recently. So he nearly tossed me out of his office after talking for an hour about the February storm in which JetBlue waited too long to cancel flights, grounding planes and stranding passengers for days. The guy was spent. Hadn't slept much in three weeks. But I didn't think his days were numbered.
He handled the whole fiasco with a candor, humility, and accountability that's rare in CEOs and further cemented the notion that he embodied the brand. I thought he'd retreat from the spotlight, recommit himself to improving the operating systems that had failed, and, like his airline, recover.
For all of his breakthrough thinking about how an airline should treat its customers and his inspirational leadership, Neeleman has never run a large organization. Morris Air, the regional airline he started in his twenties, was acquired by Southwest, where Neeleman lasted six months. It was too stuck in its ways, he insisted. I'm not convinced a bigger JetBlue suited him, no matter how much he insisted that he embraced such growth.
Three years ago, I flew JetBlue with him from New York to Salt Lake City, his former home. Before boarding the plane, he paused to talk with a couple of members of the grounds crew. He knew the employees by name and even asked how one man's wife was handling chemo. But then he encountered a pilot who joked, "So you really do exist." The pilot had worked for JetBlue for two and half years without meeting its supposedly accessible CEO.
Neeleman looked confused, even stunned. That's what happens when a company grows, and yet it doesn't jibe with his hands-on, personal approach. In fact, it gets much harder, near impossible with 9,000-plus employees in more than 50 locations. Add in more planes, more flights, more demands, and you've got yourself a very different airline.
JetBlue's board appears to be acknowledging that as well as Neeleman's limits. He launched a successful, groundbreaking airline - no small feat - but now it's time to hand over the controls.