- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — David Neeleman stepped down as chief executive of JetBlue Airways Corp. yesterday, giving up operational control of the airline he built from a scrappy low-fare upstart into a carrier with nearly 600 daily flights.

Mr. Neeleman is being replaced as CEO by Dave Barger, who has been president, but will stay on as chairman.

The move comes less than three months after two winter storms forced JetBlue to cancel nearly 1,700 flights. Mr. Neeleman acknowledged yesterday that it was time for him to step aside and let the operating experts take over.

“I think the board has been talking about this for a long time,” Mr. Neeleman said in an interview.

Mr. Neeleman had been CEO since 1998. He said he will focus on strategic initiatives by staying on as chairman.

Storms on Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day essentially shut JetBlue down, forcing the cancellation of nearly 1,700 flights and stranding thousands of travelers throughout the Northeast.

To prevent a recurrence, JetBlue drafted a “customer bill of rights,” under which the company now issues vouchers to some customers who experience delays.

The canceled flights and vouchers cost JetBlue $41 million, contributing to the company’s first-quarter loss of $22 million, or 12 cents a share. That was an improvement over the year-ago quarter, but was less than analysts had originally expected.

Mr. Neeleman said the change came at the request of the company’s board, which wanted to separate the CEO and chairman jobs.

Mr. Neeleman said JetBlue’s hiring of Russell Chew as chief operating officer in the aftermath of the storms may have accelerated the timing of the CEO change. Mr. Chew’s presence allowed Mr. Barger to focus less on day-to-day operations and more on managing the entire company, which in turn freed Mr. Neeleman to return to his roots as a corporate strategist.

“An entrepreneur comes in and he founds the company and then it gets going,” Mr. Neeleman said of himself. But then, he said the entrepreneur found himself operating a growing, complicated business — which is not his strong suit.

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