When it comes to the divisive abortion debate, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is taking the cautious approach.
United Airlines CEO Asked About Abortion…Dodges Question
Appearing on CBS Mornings, Kirby was asked about whether United had an obligation to weigh in on abortion and the expected overturning of Roe v Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, as it has with other social issues. Kirby responded:
“My obligation, I think, is to the do the right thing for our employees. Our recent adverting campaign is “Good Leads the Way” and we’ve tried to do the right thing throughout. My preference is to lead by example. The work United has done on sustainability, on diversity, even what we did with vaccine requirements (that was controversial), but we took action instead of talking. Let action lead the way and do the right thing for our employees and our customers.”
The appropriate follow-up would be to ask what “doing the right thing” means. Public opinion on abortion in the United States is deeply divided and “doing the right thing” means different things to different people. Were Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe and abortion to become severely restricted in Texas, where United has a major hub, Kirby could “do the right thing” by helping employees access abortion over state lines. But other United employees would consider that aiding and abetting murder. United could “do the right thing” by saying nothing at all, a bid to avoid stirring the boat. But we saw that didn’t work well for Disney in Florida and airlines like United have not been shy about addressing other social issues.
A follow-up occurred, with Kirby again asked if he would speak up publicly on issues in the news. Kirby said:
“When we need to we will. We’ve tried, however, to really focus on letting action lead the way. You know one of the frustrations I think we all have with politics, it’s become divisive. People are against the other side as opposed to for things. We can do things like the Aviate Academy, which is training the next generation of pilots but it’s also effecting diversity. That’s inspirational to people. It’s positive. Lead by positive example. And there’s a lot of opportunities for us in corporate leadership to lead by positive example instead of just be putting out a corporate statement opposed to something.”
View From The Wing wonders why airlines get involved in affirmative action, gun control, and voting rights, but not on abortion. I think Kirby’s answer says it all – there is no winning answer. Support for same-sex marriage has rapidly increased over the last decade. A huge majority now support it, marking a revolution. As for abortion, public opinion hasn’t changed all that much since abortion became a nationwide right in 1973. It’s the sort of issue that will deeply divide customers and employees, just as it deeply divides the nation. Knowing when to speak up and when to remain silent is not an easy task.
Messr. Kirby and other airline CEOs find themselves in a difficult position over abortion. While Kirby’s language above is perfectly appropriate out of context, it is more difficult to justify when United has gone on the record for other deeply divisive social issues. But perhaps this latest diplomatic tap dance is a realization that abortion is a unique beast in American politics that requires even greater special handling.
image: CBS News (fair use)