This week was Leadership Week at United Airlines with a number of addresses from top-level leadership about the future of United.
In an extended conversation with Walter Isaacson, a member of the United Airlines Board of Directors, CEO Scott Kirby pitted United against Wall Street and explained why United will focus on the quality of the passenger experience in the months ahead.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby Vs. Wall Street
Kirby frames the conversation as United Airlines against Wall Street, saying United will no longer give into short-term demand for numbers and performance.
“One of the mistakes United made over the years was giving into Wall Street, who is very short-term focused and I think it’s really important we do the right thing for the long-term.
“The good news is doing the right thing, even if costs you something in the short-term, is almost always the right answer in the long-term.”
Specifically, this was implicated by the recent order of up to 500 new aircraft. But Kirby insists that rather that kowtowing to demand to cut capacity, the airline must think long-term:
“People on Wall Street got mad at us. Still are mad at us about an aircraft order…
“We’ve underutilized our hubs and we’ve tried to fly 50 seat regional jets up against Delta or American or Southwest flying mainline jets and we lose that battle. It’s a higher cost airplane. It’s a worse product. We just lose the battle and you get on this negative flywheel…”
Kirby is right about using the right-sized jets, though I’m not sure Wall Street was actually that angry at United for its new aircraft order. Still, the fact that Kirby is thinking long-term is an important point of distinction from two of his recent predecessors, Jeff Smisek and Glenn Tilton.
Kirby: Customers Care About Quality. That’s What We Are Betting On
Kirby pivots from the aircraft order to the onboard product, noting that central to his growth plan is offering the best product and best customer service.
“We’ve always had the most potential of any airline in the world so this is really about realizing our potential. And part of that means we have the right airplanes and we have to have a market share that’s equivalent to what our bills are, but it’s also about the product.
“To me, the most important thing at United Next is not the 500 airplanes. That’s exciting, that’s important, but it’s about getting the entire product to be a great product that makes a difference to customers.
“And the people on Wall Street have said, ‘Oh you’re making a big bet on recovery in business demand or recovery and demand,’ and what I see is that’s not the bet we’ve made. We’re making a bet that customers care about quality, that people will fly us because we’ve got the best product and the best customer service.
“Some people care only about price, but there are a lot of people out there that care about more than just saving $2 on their airline ticket and that’s the bet we’re making is that quality will bring us loyal customers.”
There’s still a disconnect between that rhetoric and the onboard product. Kirby as much as admits that when he speak about the importance of brining glassware back onboard in another part of his conversation with Isaacson. But it’s so much more than glassware or the current unbelievably miserly catering offered on longhaul flights in all three cabins: it is about creating a door-to-door quality experience that passengers are willing to pay a premium for. Seamless check-in on the app. Ground experience. Wi-Fi onboard. A compelling MileagePlus program.
In other meetings this week, United leadership talked about replacing Sodexo at United Clubs with the same team that is responsible for catering for American Express Centurion Lounges. It talked about a new flight test kitchen in ORD that eventually will transform the onboard catering experience. Stay tuned for more details on that.
There’s a lot of talk right now and it’s all music to the ears of every frequent Untied flyer…but it will come down, as it always does, to execution.
Kirby is saying all the right things…he has for months. United Airlines has also positioned itself very well to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, especially when international traffic rebounds. But Kirby must inspire employees to provide uniformly good service and offer a soft product that rivals or exceeds any of its U.S. competitors. That remains a work in progress, but all sources indicate United is working on it.
image: Scott Kirby / Instagram
action speak louder than words, especially with Scott Kirby. let’s see what happens
Talk is cheap, whiskey costs money, vastly more so for Kirby.
UA needs to go to 4 course dining on Polaris and Long Haul HI flights (those need to be Polaris as well simply to match DL and AA). PP can be a 2 course meal
Food needs to be the same quality as the initial Polaris roll out. Currently, Polaris meals seem like decent PP meals.
Bring back full meals on 900 mile or longer flights at meal times. Other times, the sandwiches are fine (they are quite good). Just add a bag of chips to create a small meal
Sell PP as a separate cabin on ALL flights that have it, even the hub to hub domestic hops. Perhaps the sandwich and a bag of chips would suffice as a meal for that cabin on short domestic hops
Those are some low hanging fruit ways UA can improve their quality immediately
I agree. UA has made so many cuts since Polaris launched.
Interesting to hear about the test kitchen and new club caterer
Time for UA to rapidly roll out soft product improvements
On time, on time, on time, on time.
I fly 50 seaters for Commutair. Why is our Net promoter score higher than airlines that fly only 76 seaters (and I mean WAY higher). The overall passenger experience is about much more then Wifi. I had a passenger the other day getting off the plane saying hello to the flight deck and he proclaimed we are the friendliest and he loves the single seat. Fuel burn is the killer of the 50 seaters. We only burn about 30% less fuel but carry 1/3.5 the pax of a 737. Either way. I call BS on passenger experience. The passenger experience on a short 60 minute flight is about the people.
Scott Kirby is so f–king slimey and he lies thru his teeth. Don’t believe a damn word he says. He has shown time and time again the thing he cares most about is bean counting not even giving the customer the slightest little benefit.
Maybe that was Doug Parker who was the real problem. Notice that AA is still having major issues. The common link is DOUG PARKER
Munoz seemed more authentic, genuine, and honest, compared to SK
It was the AA team that laughed at Kirby recently for going the extra mile to install IFE screens at UA. I wouldn’t be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water. Kirby is trying to step out of the shadow of AA. Keep in mind, the man was terminated from AA for reasons that departed from AA’s vision. We now know that AA’s vision is to race Spirit to the bottom. Hello, Oasis seating!
Kudos to Kirby for at least taking steps beyond what his limitations were at AA. It’s always a different story when you take the helm and become accountable for steering your own ship. I refuse to admonish anyone that wades into waters where they need to dodge depth charges to be successfully, so to speak. It won’t be easy but at least the man is trying!
true. I’d certainly rather fly UA over AA’s Oasis. a delusional oasis in the desert apparently.
I was flying home last month when Southwest had the meltdown. Two couples were desperately trying to get home.; their SW flights were canceled, and were told the next flight for them would be in 3 days. The United gate agents were outstanding! They made it happen. Found their luggage, got it from SW to place on our flight and both couples got home. The flight was delayed 10 min to help these couples. They could have said “too bad about your luggage, figure it out with SW”, but I listened to their efforts to get the service customers deserve. I think Kirby is on track. I will continue to purchase United stock as I know the airline will emerge in to.
re: ‘quality vs. Wall St’….sounds like Kirby and team are saying “we want to copy DELTA”
I’ll take it.
They will never change until they put running an airline at the forefront instead of taking on and feeding into every societal ill that comes down the pike, otherwise they will stay as they are now – one of the world’s largest social services agency.
True. And let’s face it, we’ve heard this song-and-dance before. UA has been pretty bad for at least 20 years. Does anybody remember the “You Snooze You Lose” ad campaign from donkey years ago? They made a big deal about how they were restoring meal service in coach. This is just more gum-flapping.
Your last sentence has a typo.
You fixed it. My work is done.
Kirby is absolutely correct with his plan. I hope it all happens and they are successful.
My experience of UA is that the booking process is good, the app is excellent, the IT is good, the check in procedure is great, the onboard seats are fine, but interaction with the gate agents and the FAs is where it all goes horribly wrong. When I’m in the back of the bus I expect to be treated like sheep but I don’t want to be given the impression that I’m simply a nuisance to them. And when I’m up front, I expect to be treated as an individual and I don’t want to be someone who needs servicing as quickly as possible and then forgotten. Sadly, UA fails completely on both counts.
Restore Polaris soft product to what it was at launch then I’ll believe it.
Scott time to shut up and get to work. I think this is the 3rd article about UA and quality here in the past 2 weeks. You’d do well to read the comments here. Most are spot on. We don’t care if you are the biggest airline we just want our preplandemic level of service back. I’m sitting in the C gate Club at ORD and the morning food selection is pitiful. When is the last time you visited here? Maybe you should. Oh, and I’ll get nothing in first class this morning either except for a cup of coffee. Talk is great but so far I’m NOT seeing a CEO who can execute a plan. UA board, I’d start reviewing some resumes…
Parker and Kirby, The CEOs of the shittier half of the big 4, do love to hear the sound of their own half-baked promises
Until the theater of the masks and the eye stinging sanitizer packs are gone for good in the cabins and terminals, talk of “quality experience” is a bad joke. A tube full of Zombies dying to leave the system to gasp a breath of fresh air again is what flying has become. Used to love to fly and looked for reasons to do so. Now it is an absolute dreaded experience just to get somewhere. People are tired of the lack of common sense and the carriers need to press for the mandated to stop for good
Too bad they couldn’t be bothered to provide quality in their product or customer service. Same crap seats too small for most children, same excuses to provide little or no service onboard, same shafting customers by fraudulently selling seats that don’t exist. A US airline should be fined a million bucks for using words like quality to describe the garbage that passes for air travel in this country.
I work for United Airlines. I felt lucky that we had Oscar Munoz but I can honestly say I feel we hit the Jackpot with Scott Kirby. He cares for his people & his customers who fly Us daily. He is doing some good bold things in such a short amount of time all while emerging out of a global crisis. We are getting new keys, each plane will have touch TV screen with bluetooth connectivity, mood lighting, boarding music and larger overhead bins. We are re-opening lounges and implementing strategies to improve our passenger experience that will make us “Uniquely United”.
I love my job, I love my airline and I love my customers who fly us each day. My job is an extension of my home and i promise that I will always be the best to my customers and my colleagues. Change doesn’t happen over night but United is rising. Please stay with us and travel this journey with as we bestow on not only becoming the biggest and largest, but also the best airline that connects people and unites the world.
Thank you Scott Kirby.
1K here. All I can say is lots of PlusPoints accumulated and no upgrades during a pandemic when people are flying less. Until there is tangible evidence of United separating from the pack in terms of improved quality, all I can say is “Kirby’s talk is cheap”
@SPEED BIRD I think you are right in the mark! Since leaving AA for UA and now in 4th year of 1K I can say that my experience has been generally good, and far better than what I experienced as ExPlat. I’ve had exceptional service by the 1K phone agents. UA isn’t Singapore airlines. But I have no complaints, except that yes the plus points are tough to use sometimes, especially confirming upgrades on TATL or APAC long hauls even when seats are wide open. Because Dallas is my home base UA isn’t always the most convenient option. But I enjoy the experience much more than AA. When things go wrong – and they will when you travel a lot-UA always seems to take care of me. Been flying frequently since 1986 and millions of butt in seat miles. So I speak from experience.
Yawn. So much talk.