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May 07, 2008

Fly Jet Azul, David Neeleman's Brazilian Clone


Like this, but with better music.
Photo: AP

by Barbara S. Peterson

JetBlue founder David Neeleman yesterday revealed the name for his new Brazilian airline: "Azul." You can understand why he liked it, since that's Portuguese for blue. But the name was supposed to have been chosen by a democratic process, à la American idol, where people could have proposed names and then voted on the finalists. As a gimmick, it apparently succeeded: Some 108,000 people submitted entries, Neeleman said. But it appeared "Azul" didn't win the popular vote--more people voted for the other finalist, "Samba." So why rig the results? "Azul is a metaphor for security, serenity, loyalty, and quality--as well as connoting flight, as the color of the sky," Neeleman gushed. But he also hastened to add, "We want our company to define the name, not have the name define our company," which will begin flying 118-seat Embraer jets (with JetBlue touches like leather seats and live TV) between major Brazilian cities in January.

The name game brought back memories of JetBlue's startup, which I covered for Condé Nast Traveler in the December 1999 issue, two months before the airline's scheduled debut. (I later expanded the story into a book, Blue Streak). When Neeleman revealed that name to a packed news conference in mid 1999, few knew that the moniker wasn't his first choice. Actually, he'd wanted to call it simply "Blue" but was discouraged when his partners pointed out that he couldn't trademark it. That was after they'd sorted through hundreds of proposed entries from branding firms, ad agencies, and the like, ranging from clinkers like "Air Hop" to "Dairy Air" to oddball candidates like "Taxi" and "Home" (apparently so you could say "I'm flying Home"). They settled for "True Blue" but found, on the eve of the news conference, that a car rental company already trademarked the name. So in a rather testy phone call with his harried marketing person, Neeleman came up with JetBlue--not a moment too soon.

Neeleman's foray into the Brazilian airline scene, which is dominated by TAM and GOL airlines (which recently acquired former flag carrier Varig), might seem strange at first glance. But Neeleman was born in Brazil, where his journalist father was UPI bureau chief, and he holds dual citizenship; he also returned to the country as a teenager for a two-year stint as a Mormon missionary. Still, it's a bittersweet move in light of the events of the past year, during which Neeleman was pushed out as CEO of the airline he founded after the notorious meltdown in February of 2007 (dozens of planes were stuck on the tarmac at JFK during an ice storm). Neeleman will formally depart the JetBlue board this month, ending a ten-year run that even his detractors would have to concede had a huge influence on the industry. And it's showing up in other parts of the globe: Kingfisher Airlines, the Indian upstart that was patterned after JetBlue (its first president, Alex Wilcox, was one of Neeleman's top executives) is doing well and expects to be flying to New York from India this fall.

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