EXCLUSIVE: Breeze Airways CEO, JetBlue Founder David Neeleman On Why He's Launching 'A Little Nicer' Airline

The overcast skies looming over Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport did nothing to quash the spirit of city officials — including Mayor LaToya Cantrell — and airport functionaries watching, clapping or dancing along with the Treme Brass Band, two Zulu Tramps and an oversized Louis Armstrong bobble head-like figure as they all gathered by a gate Thursday.

While this could seem like a mysterious ritual — perhaps unique to the city — to the random passengers who walked by, this was actually a typical New Orleans press conference welcome that helped everyone pass the time, as what was supposed to be the inaugural flight to New Orleans of the new Breeze Airways with the CEO onboard was running late.

CEO David Neeleman is an industry veteran, but even he can’t control the weather or mechanical issues that can mess with even the most organized of plans.

What Is Breeze Airways? Before Breeze, Neeleman was involved in the startups for four airlines: Morris Air, which was sold to Southwest Airlines Co LUV in 1993; West Jet Airlines (Canada); JetBlue Airways Corp JBLU; and Azul Brazilian Airways, part of Azul S.A AZUL.

Breeze Airways will initially fly 39 nonstop routes between 16 cities in the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest and along the Eastern U.S., focusing most of its flights out of four airports: Tampa, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and New Orleans.

The average length of flights is 2 hours. Inaugural flights start at $39 one-way and can be booked online or on the airline's app.

Breeze Airways is competing with other low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines Inc SAVE and Frontier Group Holdings ULCC, highlighting low fares and high flexibility.  

“We don’t charge for change fees. We move your credit to the next flight,” Neeleman said in an interview with Benzinga. 

“We try be a little nicer,” the CEO said of Breeze Airways' approach, a natural lead-up to how the airline categorizes its airfares, which are divided between “Nice” and “Nicer” fares.

“Nice,” its least expensive ticket, allows the passenger to bring on a purse and backpack with no fee, and can choose a seat and bring on luggage for an additional fee — $20 each bag, one-way, with up to three bags. The fee remains the same if the bag is checked or brought on board.

“Nicer” includes a seat assignment with extra legroom, a personal item, carry-on bag, one checked bag, a complimentary snack and priority boarding.

Seat assignments start at $10, but seating is free for families traveling with children under 12. Want to bring your pet in the cabin? That will be $75.

A “Nicest” airfare is slated for introduction in the fall when Breeze adds 60 larger airplanes in the form of the Airbus A220. It is now flying 13 single-class Embraer aircraft.

Needleman said planes are leased and purchased: “whatever we thought was the best use of capital.”

The airline made its debut on May 27, with remaining cities added each week through July 22.

Why Start An Airline — Again? Neeleman is a dedicated airplane entrepreneur.

“It was something I found I was good at and successful,” he said.

Neeleman is known for his innovations. While at Morris Air, Neeleman and a colleague developed a database that analyzed fares, schedules and profitability, as well as issued e-tickets.

This became the basis for a new reservation and data platform, Navitaire, which is still used by many airlines, including Breeze, according to an Inc. story about Neeleman.

Neeleman is also looking for ways to make travel easier and affordable. And of course, make a profit while doing it.

In 2018, Neeleman planted the seeds of Breeze Airways, raising $100 million, which included some of his money and some investments by others.

But where to fly?

“We tried to find desirable cities that didn’t have nonstop destinations,” he told Benzinga. 

Why It’s Important: Ninety-five percent of new Breeze Airways routes are without existing nonstop service.

Among the other cities Breeze Airways is flying to are Bentonville/Fayetteville, Arkansas; Bentonville is the headquarters for Walmart Inc WMT. It is the home of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton, a Walmart heiress.

The CEO also sees it as an economic driver, bringing more people to these cities. “Who doesn’t like going to New Orleans or Charleston,” he said.

Neeleman is also a lesson in perseverance, as he was let go from Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, but came back with Azul and now Breeze Airways.

“I think you just get up every day and don’t look back and look forward, learn from mistakes and get better," he said

For Breeze Airways, the CEO said he wants to “build a great company and people like to fly. It’s important.”

Why Are Neeleman's Airlines Always Blue? “The sky is blue,” he laughed. “I think we started with JetBlue and stuck with it.”

Photo: Eva and David Neeleman at the official inaugural flight to New Orleans of Breeze Airways, July 15, 2021.

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