EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall, who took the reins at the discount airline in July 2010, was the subject of a profile in The New York Times published on Monday that chronicled the company’s impressive comeback. The airline logged record annual profits for the last four years and nearly doubled its revenue during that time. Meanwhile, many other European airlines have lost money consistently since the beginning of the 2008 financial downturn.
Despite that accomplishment, McCall told the audience at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in London, “I’m not a turnaround expert.” In fact, when she took the CEO job, she says she didn’t fully realize what she was getting into.
“I didn’t know quite how bad things were operationally when I took the job,” she said. Back in 2010, easyJet was known for frequent delays—more than a third of its flights were late—and subpar customer service.
“My CFO and I started on the same day, and on the fourth day, we just put our heads down and said, ‘What have we done?'” McCall said. “For the first year or 18 months, we had to keep reminding ourselves how good the business model is. If we lost sight of that, we would have lost hope.”
McCall addressed the airline’s chronic tardiness by focusing on the company’s operations. She spent the first eight months as CEO getting “the right people in the right jobs,” she said on Monday. Her emphasis on operations went beyond simply making sure the planes landed on time. Punctuality in the airline business is also critically important to customer service. And if you’re not good to customers, McCall says, “You’ll never have as much profit as you should have. It’s the bedrock of any business.”
(Fortune reported in early June that a comparison of the airline industry’s annual income with its latest customer service scores showed that the more an airline earns, the less it cares about customer service. When asked about that analysis, McCall said that things are different in America because of the consolidation in the market. )
McCall’s strategy seems to have paid off, but there’s still room for improvement. She told the Fortune audience that she received a letter from a pilot thanking her for a stable schedule that allowed him to spend more time with his family, but he had one complaint. “P.S.,” he wrote, according to McCall, “crew food is still shit.”