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JetBlue is shaky at the top

While management stability is never a guarantee of company success, unusual management turnover is always a sign that something is amiss.

Perhaps the departing executive was dumped for steering the company in the wrong direction. Or he found himself at the helm of a ship he felt was headed irreversibly in the wrong direction and chose to leave before things went from bad to worse. In either case, such moves call into question a company's health. And more than one such move gives the question added urgency.

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With the announcement last week that JetBlue's CFO was leaving the company to (wink, wink) "pursue other interests," we have not just a single incident but further evidence of a larger trend at the iconic discounter's top-most levels of management. The departure of John Harvey was just the latest in a string of executive dislocations.

In April of this year, Holly Nelson resigned suddenly as the airline's Chief Accounting Officer and Controller. And—the highest profile move of all —just a month later JetBlue founder David Neeleman was replaced as CEO, following an embarrassing operational meltdown in which almost 1,700 flights were cancelled.

The initial thinking was that while Neeleman had been the right man to take JetBlue from start-up to a small but significant player, the next phase of JetBlue's life required a shift from a visionary leader to an operations-focused manager. Such changes are expected as businesses progress through their natural life cycles.

But the other moves at the top of the organization suggest that Neeleman's ouster was part of a larger, more profound bout of corporate hand-wringing, possibly relating to fundamental issues of strategy and execution.

Supporting the theory that JetBlue's troubles are more than skin deep is the verdict of Wall Street: in the wake of Harvey's resignation, JetBlue's stock price fell by 10%.

A recent AP story quotes Credit Suisse analyst Daniel McKenzie, who called the move "messy," as follows: "Two sudden, sequential management changes (ill-timed at that given a turbulent macro backdrop) this year raise questions of leadership stability at JetBlue."

The questions of stability that concern securities analysts raise questions for JetBlue customers as well. For example, have the operational deficiencies that caused last winter's flight disruptions been sorted out? And more generally, just where is JetBlue headed?

With Southwest's recent moves to increase its share of the business travel market—which would likely be partly at JetBlue's expense—and Virgin America's launch of a product obviously partly modeled on JetBlue's, but with cheaper prices, this is a critical time for JetBlue. If the precocious seven year old doesn't get its house in order, the next chapter in JetBlue's history could be far less remarkable than the first one.

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