He’s known as the founder of numerous airlines including JetBlue, Azul Brazilian Airlines, and a new airline yet to launch (it currently has the codename ‘Moxy’). It doesn’t stop there – he is also the co-founder of WestJet and Morris Air (later sold to Southwest Airlines) as well as the co-owner of Portugal’s national airline, TAP Air Portugal. So who is David Neeleman and how did he become the airline tycoon he is today?
“My grandfather had a few grocery stores [and] when I was nine years old I had a job there standing on a milk crate, working the cash register…” -David Neeleman
The early years
According to the All American Speakers Bureau, Neeleman is of Dutch descent and born in Brazil. However, he spent his formative years (from five years and up) in the United States, attending Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, and then attending the University of Utah before dropping out a year before his program finished.
At the age of 19, Neeleman headed to Brazil on a Mormon missions trip, which he credits as being an eye-opening experience for him. Speaking about the experience, Neeleman says “I grew up a lot and it taught me discipline which is something I didn’t learn in my childhood because of my ADD”.
According to an NPR Podcast, Neeleman jumped into the world of entrepreneurship in his university years. It was there that he took an opportunity to sell timeshares for a friend of a friend, which he became fairly successful at.
Then, around the time of US airline deregulation, Neeleman became a freelance travel agent of sorts – re-selling flights from Pacific East packaged with hotel stays in Hawaii. This grew to an annual revenue of six million dollars per year before the business suddenly declaring bankruptcy as one of his partner airlines ceased operations.
The airline game
According to Business Insider, Neeleman began his life as an airline entrepreneur at the young age of 25. This started because Neeleman had a call from his uncle who was a lawyer for businesswoman June Morris. June had taken notice of the successful business he once had and wanted to start an airline with him.
It was then, in 1984, that he co-founded Morris Air Charters. The carrier was a low-fare airline and for the first four years, he took the role of Executive Vice President. After this, from 1988 to 1994, he was the President of Morris Air Corporation until Southwest Airlines acquired the airline for US$130 million. In fact, Neeleman also worked on the Executive Planning Committee at Southwest. However, Inc notes that just five months after the sale, Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher fired him.
After being let go by Southwest, Neeleman became the Chief Executive Officer of Open Skies. The company was a touch screen airline reservation and check-in systems company- later acquired by Hewlett Packard in 1999. At the same time Neeleman was working at Open Skies, he assisted with the founding of Canadian carrier WestJet.
Then in 2000, Neeleman launched JetBlue: A New York-based boutique airline, now valued at more than $5 billion. According to Business Insider the new carrier “helped bring affordable civility to America’s travelers by offering high-quality service and amenities at budget prices”.
“It was a time when the legacy carriers were offering really bad service, their costs were ultra-high, and they were just right for the plucking,” -David Neeleman
In 2008 Neeleman went on to launch Azul Brazilian Airlines in his country of birth and also became the co-owner of Portugal’s national airline, TAP Air Portugal in 2015.
Moxy: The next big thing
Finally, as the article’s title states – Neeleman is on track to launch a new U.S. low-cost carrier. With the code name “Moxy”, the airline plans to begin operations in early 2021. According to CNN Traveler, Moxy will use the new Airbus A220-300 – starting with an order of 60 jets. In fact, Neeleman has even raised the idea of accelerating the launch date to 2020 by borrowing aircraft from Azul’s current fleet.
Since starting his first airline 35 years ago, David Neeleman has had a tremendous impact on the aviation industry. It will be interesting to see what is new and exciting – and unique – about Moxy! What do you think will be the new airline’s distinguishing features?