Joanna Geraghty ’94 has 30 minutes for this interview, her fourth of the day, which started early on the ABC network’s national morning show, “GMA.” Demands on your time outstrip hours in the day when you’re president of the seventh largest airline in North America. Geraghty, who also holds the title of youngest woman in history to help lead a U.S. airline, is in her 16th year with the company, her third as president. Her tenure as president is punctuated by significant achievement — in August, JetBlue was the first major airline to achieve carbon neutrality on all domestic flights — as well as serious challenges: the industry-shaking disruption that is COVID-19.
Joanna Geraghty ’94 (far left) president and chief operating officer of JetBlue Airways, is one of the highest ranking women in the U.S. airline industry today, leading with a distinctive Holy Cross mindset: service, values and community.
Addressing Holy Cross’ class of 2020 from JetBlue’s New York headquarters last spring, Geraghty assured graduates that even a global pandemic can be met with confidence: “There is no challenge that will ever be greater than our commitment to overcome it. I have Holy Cross to thank for that gift of grit, and when you need it most in your life, Holy Cross will remind you of that.”
In her address, Geraghty’s tone is confident — sans swagger. Hers is a servant leadership style and if she appears self-possessed, it is because she has the power and drive of JetBlue’s crewmembers (what the airline calls its employees) backing her.
“JetBlue’s values and mission mirror the person I want to be, as well as the Jesuit ideal of men and women for others,” Geraghty says. “Long ago, I realized people are truly your greatest asset.”
Geraghty characterizes her experience at Holy Cross as wonderful, a place where she made lifelong friends and met professors who challenged her. She was a sociology major, a discipline she found appealing for the insights it offered into people’s behavior. “I liked thinking about what motivates people, what about their backgrounds makes them who they are,” she says.
As is so often the case, many formative lessons came of experiences outside the scope of her chosen academic discipline. Tenacity was the byproduct of a math class Geraghty struggled with, which prompted her to visit her math professor’s office daily to receive extra help. Service leadership, a management philosophy that guides her in her current role, maps to Holy Cross’ Jesuit charism. And independence was forged abroad: Geraghty spent a year at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England; the experience had a profound effect. “It created a level of independence in me,” she recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to do something in the international space. I wanted to develop a larger worldview.”
After graduating, Geraghty enrolled at Syracuse University, where she earned a J.D. and an M.S. in international relations from the university’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. By 2005, she was a partner at the New York firm of Holland and Knight, and that same year, she received an offer from JetBlue to join its legal department as director of litigation and regulatory affairs. Five years later, she was named executive vice president and chief people officer and then, in 2014, executive vice president of customer experience. In 2018, she became the airline’s president and COO, and only the second woman in aviation history to run a major U.S. airline.
JetBlue has a small domestic market share, 5%, but scores big in customer satisfaction. J.D. Power’s 2020 customer satisfaction survey ranked it second only to Southwest Airlines for long- and short-haul flights among North American airlines. For the past two years, JetBlue has won Travel & Leisure’s World’s Best Award, judged by reader surveys. The magazine’s fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Southwest and Delta, command 16.5% and 17.7% market share, respectively. “We have a brand and a culture that boxes above our weight,” Geraghty told an interviewer in 2018.
To listen to her for any length of time is to discern that Geraghty’s metrics of success are as much tied to crewmember well-being and culture as customer satisfaction. “In my work, the health and safety of your people becomes your top priority,” she says.
For evidence, look no further than JetBlue’s early, swift and comprehensive response to COVID-19. The airline provided leave to crewmembers who were first responders and paid sick leave. It worked with the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders and other organizations to send supplies where they were most needed, provided flights to stranded students and offered teaching tools to parents-turned-homeschool teachers through its JetBlue Foundation and Soar with Reading program, which provides underserved communities with free children’s books; the initiative has donated more than $3.75 million worth of books to communities in need.
JetBlue was also the first major airline to require customers to wear masks. Other safety measures adopted as part of a layered approach include temperature checks for crewmembers, customer disinfecting kits, touchless check-in, bag-tagging and boarding experiences for customers and social distancing measures. The airline is also testing UV light as an added measure against bacteria and viruses.
“In a pandemic, you just take a step back and think, ‘What am I going through? What are others going through?'” Geraghty says. “COVID quickly focuses you on what really matters. We needed a process to quickly and efficiently navigate through. Our team rose to the occasion, cleaning, wearing facial coverings, offering sick pay. And we continue to learn.”
“This is an incredible moment in time that will test people’s fortitude,” she notes. “The people who thrive are going to be the resilient ones. Recognize you can learn so much in times like these.”
At a time of tremendous economic uncertainty, an airline could almost be forgiven for losing sight of its mission and values in the interest of staying solvent, but for Geraghty, aspirational thinking is most needed in trying times when people feel worried, even scared. JetBlue’s motto, “Inspiring humanity,” might, from a different source, seem grandiose, but Geraghty speaks with a plainspoken sincerity when she says, “I want people to see that JetBlue really cares. That it ensures customers who are ready to fly feel safe in doing so. We view this as a team sport. We know that you have to manage to the most vulnerable. We want to inspire confidence throughout this crisis. And we’ve made expensive financial decisions that show we care.
“Leadership to me is up close and personal. I am someone who puts values and community first,” Geraghty says. “I am fortunate enough to have a job that, at its core, amplifies what The Cross taught me: Be a person for others. The world will never have enough men and women for others.”
The airline has also made significant investments in the future of aviation through the JetBlue Foundation and initiatives like the Fly Like a Girl program. Although women have been involved in aviation almost from the industry’s inception, the sector’s gender gap when talking about pilots and maintenance technicians is only slightly better than the number of women you might find on an NFL team. Fewer than 7% of airline pilots are women and the stats are even more dismal for airline maintenance technicians: approximately 3% are female. “It’s unacceptable that 95% of our pilots are male,” Geraghty told CBS News in a 2016 interview. Cue the JetBlue Foundation, whose goal is to increase access and encourage STEM education for groups traditionally underrepresented in the industry, especially communities of color and women.
The Fly Like a Girl program gets girls thinking early on about a career in aviation through experiences such as meeting female pilots and taking tours of planes with women maintenance technicians.
“We want to make sure when girls consider where they want to go to high school and college, and as they look at future careers, that they know they can be anything — a pilot, an aircraft technician or an engineer. The sky is the limit,” Geraghty says.
To those who do end up working for a major airline, the industry rewards in ways that surprise, she observes. They have ringside seats to life’s most moving events, conveying people to the births of grandchildren, high school graduations, destination weddings and family reunions. “Not a day goes by that there’s not something exciting happening,” Geraghty says.
Written by Marybeth Reilly-McGreen ’89 for the Fall 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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