Q&A: JetBlue’s president talks about masks, blocking middle seats and when she’ll fly again

May 21, 2020

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On Wednesday, JetBlue rolled out one of the most comprehensive coronavirus-response plans we’ve seen so far. The carrier detailed new cleaning procedures, mandating temperature checks for front-line employees, and, most impressive of all, offering up a costly guarantee that travelers won’t be seated directly next to a stranger, through at least July 6.

It’s all part of the carrier’s sweeping safety initiative, which JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty hopes will help would-be travelers feel comfortable enough to book flights with the airline.

Geraghty is no stranger to TPG. She has previously joined The Points Guy’s podcast Talking Points to chat about the airline’s planned UK expansion in 2019. And, this week, she clarified JetBlue’s latest initiative with a helpful Q&A. Here’s what she had to say:

Zach Honig: Blocking seats can ultimately become quite costly for the airline — what motivated you to take that action and expand it now?

Joanna Geraghty: Our focus from the onset of this pandemic is ensuring that we provide a safe and healthy travel experience for our customers. In the early part of the pandemic obviously you had folks that were flying for essential reasons, and we started blocking seats back then because we saw this as something that customers were asking for and it’s just some peace of mind, and we’ve continued to do this and will continue to do this through the July 4 holiday.

From our perspective, it’s something that works in concert with a number of additional precautions that we’ve put into place to provide customers with peace of mind when they travel and to really focus on trying to create confidence in customers in beginning to travel again. Our seat blocking, along with the steps we’re taking around healthy crewmembers, our clean air and surfaces pillar of the Safety From the Ground Up program, and the more space and fewer touchpoints — these all work together in concert so that customers feel that we’re doing everything we can to create a healthy and safe environment onboard the aircraft.

Honig: How have customers responded to the mask requirement?

Geraghty : From our perspective, it’s really going to be the new flying etiquette until this pandemic is behind us, and our customers have been amazingly understanding with regard to this requirement. Everybody recognizes that it’s just something that is part of a new norm as we navigate through this crisis, and we’ve had relatively few issues.

Honig: How will you handle passengers who don’t comply?

Geraghty: We have trained our inflight crewmembers around what we call the ABCs — essentially a deescalation process — and we’re asking them to really rely on their training around how do you deescalate situations when customers are not compliant. We don’t intend to divert an aircraft if somebody’s noncompliant, but if somebody is noncompliant they’ll be met with corporate security on landing, and will be considered for prohibition on flying on a future JetBlue flight.

Honig: Have you flown yourself recently? Do you have any plans to?

Geraghty: I definitely have plans to. I was out at the airport visiting the team about two-and-a-half, three weeks ago, and I’ll be flying in the next couple of weeks. From our perspective, flying is just as safe as anything else that you do when you leave your home, and when you add that with the precautions that we’re putting into place, I think that is something I look forward to doing as the shelter-in-place orders lift and as states start to reopen.

Honig: Would you say it’s now time for the general public to begin booking leisure trips?

Geraghty: First and foremost you have to comply with whatever the state rules that are in place, in the location that you’re in. We’re not encouraging people to travel if it’s not currently permitted within the place that you live. As states start to reopen, we feel that the framework we’ve built, that includes travel flexibility, will provide customers with confidence that they can book something now and if their plans change, we’ll waive the change and cancel fee. All of these pieces work together to give customers confidence in flying on a leisure trip in the shorter term or booking something further out, knowing that we’re still going to be in this pandemic for some time.

We’re all in this together and we’ve gotta navigate these times in a way that gets folks comfortable returning to some semblance of normalcy, including getting on a plane and flying to a leisure destination or on a business trip.

Honig: A few Caribbean islands have announced that they’re going to start welcoming travelers next month. Do you plan to add flights to the schedule once they’re official open? How will that ramp-up be handled?

Geraghty: We’re working very closely with a number of Caribbean governments to understand what protocols they’re going to have in place, so that they can feel comfortable opening up again. As they open up, we are working with them around the timing of when service should return and what precautions they will require of customers traveling to those islands, and making sure that any customer who books a JetBlue flight to those locations is aware of those requirements.

Honig: Could we expect Caribbean flights in June, or is it too soon to say?

Geraghty: It’s a little soon to say. From our perspective, we’re encouraging a regional approach, so that the requirements for entry into the Caribbean islands are somewhat standardized. I know that we’ve been speaking with a number of the hotel companies down there, and I think everybody’s working through exactly what are the health protocols that need to be put into place that would provide them with a level of confidence that they can reopen the islands.

Honig: Have you been in touch with the TSA? What can passengers expect going forward for some of the airport elements that are not directly within the airline’s control?

Geraghty: The TSA has been a fantastic partner throughout this event. They have a tremendous group of frontline workers who have had to work through this pandemic just as airport and airline employees have had to as well. When I was at the airport I can tell you that there was adequate social distancing in place at the TSA checkpoint, the TSA members were wearing full personal protective equipment and following all social distancing protocols.

It’s a different experience going through the airport than it was pre-coronavirus. Everybody’s wearing facial coverings, you have social distancing in place, you have markers on the floors to ensure that customers aren’t standing too closely together, there are signs everywhere reminding customers that we’re in this together and we need to focus on the things that local governments have put into place and the things that the airlines and the airports have put into place. It’s a very different experience, but one that, from my perspective at least, excels.

Honig: What would you say to help someone feel more comfortable flying right now?

Geraghty: Flying is just as safe as anything else you would do when you leave your house. When you look at all of the protections that we’ve put into place, from blocking the middle seats on our larger aircraft to blocking the aisle seats on our smaller aircraft, to the HEPA filters that are in place, that clean the air of any viruses and bacteria, to wearing facial coverings, to ensuring our crewmembers are healthy when they come to work, to reducing touchpoints throughout the experience, whether it’s your onboard service or self-scanning your boarding passes.

All of these protections put into place create an environment where it’s healthy and it’s safe to travel. They work together and we feel that these are the things that you’re going to have to have in place to get customers comfortable traveling again and to get customers back on flights.

Bottom line

JetBlue’s seat-blocking initiative is among the industry’s most generous — joining similar policies from Alaska Airlines, Delta and Southwest — with up to half of seats held back from sale on some planes. Geraghty hopes the airline’s pricey bet will pay off, making travelers feel comfortable enough to book a flight — perhaps with an airline that’s guaranteeing they won’t sit next to someone they don’t know.

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