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Serial airline starter expands Charleston’s flight plans

Staff //March 31, 2022//

Serial airline starter expands Charleston’s flight plans

Staff //March 31, 2022//

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David Neeleman is good at starting airlines. 

“That’s what I do,” he said.  

His track record isn’t as strong for seeing operations through, but he hopes the success of his newest venture, Breeze Airways, is a sign that the worst is behind him.  

Headquartered in Utah, the airline launched in May with two nonstop flights out of Charleston — the largest of its now five bases in the United States. The airport has regularly added routes throughout the year, expanding to its 28 cities as of March. 

“When I was in Charleston last May, I thought ‘There’s a heck of a lot of people who are going to be in Charleston this year and have no idea yet,’” Neeleman said. 

The airline kicked off with flights from Charleston International Airport to Tampa, Fla., and Hartford, Conn.— cities that never had direct connections before. By summer, five more routes were added. By December, another two. This month, four more, including the Holy City’s first nonstop flight to San Francisco.  

Today there are 17 routes that fly direct to and from CHS in markets previously untapped by any other airline.  

“We look at the traffic and we see what the travel patterns are. A lot of people fly between two cities where there’s not nonstop service, and we know there’s a market there,” Neeleman said. 

Neeleman believes Charleston’s historic nature, food and people that have made the airline’s partnership with the city and its airport so successful.  

“When I was on the flight coming from Islip, a lot of people got off the airplane and said, ‘We don’t have to connect anymore in Baltimore.’ They were coming on Southwest and connecting through Baltimore,” he said. “There’s just a huge community of interest between New York and Charleston.” 

Neeleman was born in Brazil, when his father was stationed there temporarily for work, but was raised back in the U.S. Today, he lives in Utah, where he began his career as a commercial airline entrepreneur. At the age of 24, Neeleman chartered flights, eventually evolving his business into his first airline, Morris Air. 

He ran the company for 10 years before selling to Southwest Airlines for $130 million. Neeleman remained Morris Air’s president and also served on Southwest’s executive planning committee. Just a few months after the acquisition in 1994, Neeleman parted ways with Southwest, accepting a five year non-compete clause. While he waited, he headed north to Canada where he helped start up another airline, WestJet. Simultaneously, he served as CEO of Open Skies, an airline reservation and check-in system company later acquired by Hewlett Packard.  

When the timer dinged in 1999, Neeleman incorporated JetBlue, which was officially founded in February of that year. The pattern repeated itself years later when Neeleman lost control of that company, too. A snowstorm in February 2007 exposed a breakdown in the airline’s operations, leading to nearly 1,000 canceled flights in five days, customers stranded on planes and company shares fell 25% after a 52-week high, according to CNBC. On May 10, Neeleman was replaced as CEO of JetBlue by David Barger.  

“It totally motivated me,” Neeleman said. “When I left JetBlue, I went down to the country of my birth and started an airline down there and it’s become the largest airline in Brazil.” 

In operation for 12 years, Azul Brazilian Airlines now flies over 100,000 people on 800 daily flights. 

Neeleman said the business was a tremendous opportunity that would have never happened if he had not parted ways with JetBlue.  

“You learn something every time you start a new airline… I learned a lot from Brazil about flying exclusive markets,” he said. “Eighty percent of our 130 cities we serve down there have no nonstop competition. So that works a lot better than having to fight things out with people, especially when things get tough.” 

Neeleman said he avoids airports where major airlines fly, and instead picked up markets like San Bernadino, Calif., Huntsville, Ala., and Akron, Ohio.   

The airline entrepreneur’s past also taught him the importance of communicating better with the board and hiring the right operations team.  

“There are certain principles you have to live by and provisions you have to take and there’s always things that happen,” Neeleman said. “But great management teams can really get you through tough times.” 

He sees Breeze growing from here, adding more connections to Charleston, including this month’s Syracuse, N.Y., Fort Myers, Fla., and Las Vegas, Fla. There are also other cities out west Breeze can serve from Charleston, and Neeleman hopes to announce those soon.  

“We knew Charleston was going to be a great place to go to, but this is even surprising us,” he said.