DALLAS – Following our inflight experience with five-star air operator JSX, onboard their “hop-on jet service” from Las Vegas to Dallas, we sat down to interview Kevin Horan, Chief Corporate Soul Officer.
Without further ado, here’s what we learned:
Luca Zocche: What is yours and Alex Wilcox’s (CEO & Co-founder) experience in the industry, and what have you learned from those experiences?
Kevin Horan: I would say the parts from the past are the learnings of what did and didn’t work. So I think you would find if you talk to anybody on the leadership team up to and including Alex, we’ve all worked for various historic carriers.
Mine are People Express, Pan Am, America West, American US Airways, the original, International Lease Finance Corporation (an aircraft lessor) and then Seabury Aviation consulting with a variety of carriers around the world before I got here.
Alex was with Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue. He was a founder of JetBlue. He was the first employee hired at JetBlue actually. He was with KingFisher in India and a couple of other carriers and then founded JetSuite and later JSX.
By way of background, Alex is a founding executive of JetBlue Airways as well as president and COO of Kingfisher Airlines until 2006, having started his career in customer service at Virgin Atlantic Airways, where he helped David Tait, who headed US Virgin Atlantic.
He has spent over half a decade dedicated to reinventing and re-shaping the private jet narrative for the public with a human-first approach by providing the general public many of the perks of flying private, readily accessible, and attainable for today by removing the cost prohibitive barrier of entry.
We’ve got people from US Airways, PSA, Spirit, Frontier, Delta, American. Pick a carrier. We got somebody who’s been there. And so we’ve got all this experience but the one commonality that all of us had was we always knew there was a better way to do it.
Being here at a smaller entrepreneurial carrier we can try those things we have always wanted to try, in an effort to improve and simplify the travel experience. When they work, great when they don’t work, we can pivot and change when we need to.
We’ve almost been like this little lab experiment where we could try different things, push the envelope, and see how we can improve the experience. JSX stands for joyful, simple experience. It’s all about the experience.
Luca Zocche: What standards do you follow as a Part 121/Part 135 operator?
Kevin Horan: We train to 121 standards even though we’re a Part 135. We have a unique population that we can recruit from which has allowed us to keep our classes. Our classes right now are full through January with a steady pool that we continue to build.
Even though I say that we can hire at a lower time, our average right now is a 1250 and the requirement is 1500 so we’re not really that much lower.
We are also a partner in United Airlines’ Aviate program. We’re also part of Jetblue’s Gateway program and we have the ability to hire pilots who have hit the mandatory retirement age at other carriers, but are not quite ready to stop their flying career.
Luca Zocche: Why do your pilots switch over to other airlines?
Kevin Horan: We really only lose pilots to mainline carriers and the large cargo carriers. Even then, our attrition numbers are very low compared to others.
Those who elect to leave for one of those carriers are going to fly larger aircraft with the potential of seeing significant pay increases over the course of their career and the potential to fly internationally.
Luca Zocche: Are you offering a better value in terms of what carrier you are towards people wanting to join the company?
Kevin Horan: Our pay is compatible with regionals. We pay the upper end of the regionals, lower end of the LCCs. But our value proposition is lifestyle. We hire specifically in and for the bases that are vacant, so pilots and flight attendants don’t have to worry about where they might get sent after training.
In addition, at present and in most locations, the majority of our trips are day trips meaning they can be home with their loved ones every night. This is something particularly appealing to young families and retirees.
Luca Zocche: What different types of training do your flight attendants receive?
Kevin Horan: We see ourselves as a hospitality company that happens to fly airplanes, not an airline. We don’t talk about customer service in traditional ways, we talk about hospitality.
We use the Danny Myers model for hospitality. It’s all about creating an environment that you will remember, not specifically the way you were treated and how that made you feel – that’s hospitality.
That said, flight attendant training is focused heavily on safety and security. But in addition to that, it focuses on our definition of hospitality to include how to problem solve and be there for your customers.
The flight attendant is constantly in the aisle, constantly offering things, chatting with customers, finding out what’s going on, not sitting on a seat or sitting in a jump seat reading a book. It’s all about creating the right environment.
That’s been unique to see as the company has evolved because when I joined the company four and a half years ago, we were doing average 38 to 45-minute flights.
Now we’ve got these longer halls with Dallas-Las Vegas, Dallas to Orange County, Dallas-Miami, Miami-New York, and the flight attendants have evolved with it.
And that same philosophy that they had, which was 38 minutes of very heavy service, getting 30 people served to Las Vegas, they now have that for two and a half hours and they still want to make certain that people get off the airplane with memorable experiences.
Luca Zocche: Are your employees cross-trained like what we saw at People Express in the past?
Kevin Horan: Not in the sense that People Express or the original American West were. But we ensure exposure and understanding of other roles. As part of their 2-day onboarding program, called Red Stripe, people from every workgroup, up to and including our executives work together.
They learn about each other, their backgrounds, and what drew them to JSX. They spend time focusing on hospitality and what that means at JSX.
In addition, they spend time in the operation and at the Head Office, where they sit with various other teams and shadow their jobs for a bit.
It’s all about exposure and understanding so if, for example you’re a flight attendant, you understand what an airport service concierge’s job is. If you’re a pilot, you understand what the Customer Support team does.
Luca Zocche: Is this an example of how your new ways of working would contradict the old ways of working?
Kevin Horan: Sure. As we’ve grown larger we’ve had to put in some traditional structure and thinking – all in an effort to support the growth. But we continue to do things in a non-traditional way as well.
Take, for example, our ASC’s (Airport Service Concierges), they are our front-line airport customer service team but they do far more than what a traditional airline ticket or gate agent would do.
They wear various hats, manage all the customer interactions, keep our facilities spotless and engage with the customers. Again, that is hospitality. That is also how we get direct customer feedback and work to continually refine this exceptional product.
Luca Zocche: What are the top traits you would say you look for in potential hires that other carriers don’t?
Kevin Horan: That hospitality spark. It’s got to be genuine. Pilots aside, we do not hire many crewmembers from other airlines.
We hire from high-end hotels, restaurants, a lot of former personal assistants, jobs where you are forced to be comfortable interacting with the public for 8-10 hours a day, and actually enjoy it. The second thing is we’re looking for that entrepreneurial spirit.
We want that person who is always thinking about how to do it better and isn’t afraid to speak up or ask questions.
Then we need the adventurer, if you will. The person who is willing to try new things and deal with them and find ways to make them work when need be.
If you look at our flight attendants in particular, they work everything from a 30-minute flight with 30 people on a Friday night going into Las Vegas. All the customers are having a good time, and the flight is super short.
They have to be up to the challenge because the customers on all flights – from 28 minutes to 2 hours, expect our extraordinary service.
Luca Zocche: What would you have to tell us about loyalty? Everyone’s looking at loyalty nowadays. I don’t know what role you have in that. I don’t know if that’s the correct question to you.
Kevin Horan: We are looking at our own internal loyalty program and figuring out what works best for us. We are tied into United Airlines’ Mileage Plus and JetBlue’s TrueBlue.
We do have an incredibly loyal, for lack of a better term, fan base, simply because of all the things that we offer that others don’t. Specifically, the time savings and simplicity.
I remember when I first started working here, getting on flight, talking to customers, and customers saying, “Please don’t advertise. Please don’t tell anybody about this, because it’s like my best secret that nobody knows about and I don’t want it to be full and I won’t be able to get flights.”
It’s our loyal customers who’ve allowed us to expand. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be able to continue to exist.
Luca Zocche: You’re working with MileagePlus as you grow. Would you say that it helps in terms of gaining the customers or would you say that that’s going to be a deterrent?
Kevin Horan: No, it absolutely helps. It exposes us to a group of customers who traditionally have not been looking for us.
In the beginning, we primarily focused our marketing efforts on word of mouth and social media and not direct to consumer. The United relationship grows our direct to consumer channel.
Luca Zocche: Speaking of Aero, as a carrier do you ever see yourself like them—Aero operates also in Europe—do you ever see yourself following that type of strategy of operating in different areas of the world?
Kevin Horan: I jokingly say when we do recruiting events, that our goal is global domination. But I think really our market is domestic US, and close-in international. So Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, maybe Bermuda, but we’ll see.
This product was created to fill a hole in the US domestic travel market. The fact is short-haul flying dropped so much since 2000 and we were created to help fill that niche.
Now we’re doing things slightly differently because we’re flying these longer routes that are specialty routes where our product is in high demand. But for the most part, I think we’re a North American carrier.
Luca Zocche: Are you looking to change the meals you offer on aircraft?
Kevin Horan: With more long haul flying we’re getting ready to test a product that will give us fresh food on airplanes like the fruit cheese plate you had yesterday in addition to more variety.
We may have sandwiches, we may have wraps, we may have noodle bowls. We’re not going to put ovens on the airplane so it will always be fresh.
Luca Zocche: Is there anything that you feel I’ve left out?
Kevin Horan: I think one of our differentiators is that we don’t govern from an ivory tower. The Leadership Team is out there in the field. I’m conducting hiring events. I’m leading some of our training programs. I just got back from doing a leadership seminar with supervisors and managers.
Sherry Groff, our VP of Hospitality is the same way. Alex is out there regularly. We fly on our airplanes as much as we can because we want to know what’s going on and we want to know what’s working and not working, and we respond to it.
By example, about a year ago we moved the hospitality workshop that I was telling you about into our orientation program. We used to do it in the field and we still do it for current crew members. And Sherry and I led all of them, which was exhausting.
But part of that program is a two-hour segment in what was that program where we asked what’s working and what’s not working as we focus on the Joyful Simple Experience that is JSX. And as we workshopped it, we would problem-solve as a team.
Sherry would lead the discussion and I would be on my laptop firing of questions and suggestions to department heads and in the moment we were getting responses back of “Yeah, we can do that, or yes, we can fix it.”
AviationSource and the author, Luca Zocche would like to thank JSX for their help in making this type of coverage possible.