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JetBlue changes gears with management shuffle

Yesterday was an historic one for the airline industry generally, and for JetBlue in particular.

David Neeleman, JetBlue’s founder, gave up his CEO duties under pressure from the airline’s board of directors. His number two and JetBlue’s longtime president, David Barger, will assume Neeleman’s CEO responsibilities.

While Neeleman will hardly disappear from JetBlue’s operation—he’ll remain the carrier’s chairman—the change marks the end of an era and a new chapter in the history of his airline.

During a period when the airline industry was in turmoil and pundits were fond of excoriating airline managers for their greed and ineptitude, Neeleman presided over a company which managed to endear itself to everyone but its competitors.

JetBlue’s combination of product (comfortable seats on new jets), perks (seatback TVs, wireless Internet access in airport terminals), service (enthusiastic employees), and price (low, and simple) was unique and singularly compelling.

(I’ve never been a fan of JetBlue’s loyalty program, TrueBlue. But that’s one of the company’s very few missteps.)

Business experts understand that such shifts are natural milestones in the lifecycle of a company. The visionary entrepreneur starts the company, launching it into the marketplace. But the skills necessary and appropriate for company creation are very different from those required to manage a mature business on a day-to-day basis. Neeleman was the right man to build JetBlue. Time will tell whether Barger is the correct choice for the next stage.

Thanks, David, for a contribution to air travel which truly deserves the gratitude of travelers and a separate chapter in the history of commercial aviation.

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