There is no question that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby erred in taking a private jet to his home in Colorado while his airline melted down and thousands of passengers and crew members were stranded. But calls for his resignation strike me as equally tone deaf and counterproductive. Kirby is human…he messed up here…but he remains the best man for the job and precisely the leader that United Airlines needs at this time.
In Defense Of United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby – There Is No Defense For His Private Jet Jaunt, But He’s Still The Leader United Needs
Yesterday, I wrote about Kirby being “caught” flying private from New Jersey to Colorado during a week in which thousands of United flights were being delayed or cancelled. Did Kirby really think that would go unnoticed?
The optics were simply horrible and he should have known better. I want to compare Kirby to Jon Gooda, who is the Managing Director of Customer in Denver (DEN) for United Airlines
As Denver faced massive delays earlier in the week, Gooda could have been at home asleep in his bed. Instead, he was distributing cots at DEN, trying to make the situation a little more humane for the hundreds of passengers stuck there overnight.
— Matthew Klint – Live And Let’s Fly (@LiveandLetsFly) June 27, 2023
Imagine if instead of jetting home, Kirby had walked through the terminals at Newark and helped distribute cots or water bottles or snacks to distressed passengers. Imagine if he had gone to crew break rooms where flight attendants were sleeping on the floor and simply voiced his care that he working around the clock to get operations back on track. Could he not have worked from Newark just as well as from headquarters in Chicago or from his home in Colorado?
Sure, some will criticize him no matter what he does (the pilot’s union comes to mind…), but that would have been a Herb Kelleher (the affable former CEO of Southwest Airlines) moment that would have tilted press coverage positive and actually displayed a leadership instinct that would rally others to his cause, even if he exaggerates over the root cause of this week’s operational issues.
But that analysts is incomplete. There is much more to the story than Kirby’s foolish private jet trip.
I wholly dismiss the defenses some have suggested like “he did not want to displace a revenue passenger” or nonsense like that. Or the idea that “of course” you would expect CEO earning eight figures to fly private. Well, Kirby is no ordinary fat cat CEO. He’s the CEO of what he calls the world’s “biggest” and “best” airline.
That said, Kirby’s momentary lapse of judgment does not negate the transformative work at United his tenure has been marked by:
- Kirby correctly predicted the severity of the pandemic, but also that travel would rebound faster than expected
- During the pandemic, unlike at American and Delta, United did not hastily retire aircraft, which has placed United at a competitive advantage as travel has boomed over the last year
- Kirby has invested resources in creating an industry-leading mobile app and software like “Connection Saver” or meal service preorders that has resulted in a meaningful benefits for passengers
- Kirby correctly determined that if United wanted a revenue premium, it would need to offer a premium product onboard and introduced United Next, an ambitious plan to modernize the entire narrbowbody fleet (with amenities like seatback screens, fast wi-fi, and mood lighting)
- United has continued to expand internationally and placed a massive aircraft order, with plans to grow year after year both domestically and internationally (unlike his predecessors, Kirby is not fleeing from competition, but facing it head-on)
- United is looking toward the future with electric and supersonic aircraft and meaningfully addressing climate change not merely through gimmicks like carbon offsets or sustainable aviation fuel, but through investment in carbon capture technology which strikes me as the best way to address the more adverse effects of climate change.
Beyond those specific points, Kirby is willing to get behind a camera and “tell it like it is” to employees. That style of leadership during the pandemic won him a lot of support. His latest lapse in judgment will certainly undermine that support, but it does not negate how he has transformed United from an airline that was struggling to keep up to an airline that is marked by innovation and hungry for growth.
Again, I’m not writing this to brown nose Kirby. I think the MileagePlus program has become far less valuable under his watch, which is a critical mistake, and it boggles my mind that he continues to invest so little in onboard catering compared to his main domestic competitors including Alaska, American, Delta, and JetBlue.
And yet I insist that Kirby is exactly the right man for the job at the time. Labor is upset that he has been unable to strike a deal with pilots and flight attendants yet, but it would have been no different under former CEOs Oscar Munoz or Jeff Smisek: the song and dance of a contract battle is always protracted and the CEO is always accused of being out of touch.
I don’t defend Kirby’s use of a private jet to fly to Denver this week nor do I blindly defend his tenure at United. But I think he remains exactly the visionary United needs at this point in this chapter of the company’s growth. This news cycle will pass and Kirby will emerge bruised (as he should), but calls for his resignation strike me as wholly self-serving and counterproductive. This will be a teaching moment for Kirby, but he is the one United needs at the helm during this critical period.
image: @scottkirby / Instagram