United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is thrilled about the prospect of an effective vaccine and is banking on that for an “earnest” recovery in 2021. He expects United to play a leading role in delivering the coronavirus vaccine around the world and also announced a new focus on customer service.
United CEO: We Will Be A Leader in Distributing Coronavirus Vaccine
In a video address to employees viewed by Live and Let’s Fly, Kirby lauds scientists and Pfizer for “the vaccine” and predicts that an economic “recovery begins in earnest sometime next year.” He expects confirmation on whether the new vaccine is safe in the next couple weeks but warns there are still manufacturing, distribution, and logistics hurdles as well as the broader question of how long does immunity last once you have antibodies.
Speaking about the vaccine’s direct impact on United, Kirby focuses on the importance of distribution:
“We have to manufacture enough vaccine doses and get them distributed around the world so that a large percentage of the population has had the vaccine before we can really return to normal and before our business will return to normal.”
Even with several companies on the verge of a vaccine, distribution will not happen rapidly. However, United wants to hasten it by taking a leadership role in the distribution of vaccines around the world. Kirby added:
“By the way United, you should expect to be a leader in distributing vaccines around the world and look for more to come on our leadership role there.”
Whether that just recognizes United’s role as a global cargo carrier or hints at a specific partnership is unclear at this point.
United Enters “Intermediate” Phase of Recovery
During the pandemic, United Airlines has focused on three pillars to survive:
- raise and maintain as much liquidity as possible
- minimize cash burn
- variablize cost structure
Kirby proclaims that United is now entering an “intermediate” phase of recovery and will soon announce three new pillars to propel it to full recovery. While those will be announced later, Kirby does give a hint of United’s focus in the coming months:
“One of the big pillars is going to be about the customer and taking care of the customer…what we’ve learned during this crisis is we have a real opportunity to completely change how people feel about United Airlines.”
Kirby points out United is already doing that by eliminating domestic change fees and returning to New York JFK. He adds that “focusing on the customer is really the way we’re not just going to vault to the lead, but sustain the leadership position for all time to come.”
The Best Is Yet To Come?
If you know Scott Kirby, you know he’s one of the most competitive men in the business. While his definition of “winning” may not overlap that of a customer in all cases, Kirby dreams of United’s future role:
“I now spend most of time focused on making sure United is the world’s biggest and best airline when this is over so that we can bring all of our people back from furlough. The reality is we do have the best people in the business, we have the best hubs in the world, and we’ve managed through the pandemic better than any airline in the world so far. It’s been difficult and it’s been hard, but we will be number one when this is over.”
Of course some of this may just be to rally the troops. United has managed the pandemic well in the sense of self-preservation, but has had to lay off thousands of employees while Delta and Southwest have, thus far, avoided this. United’s relative reliance on international routes compared to its legacy competitors also creates a more difficult baseline to recover from.
But if Kirby sees the roadmap to being world’s greatest airline comes through focus on customer service, I think we can agree he is on the right path.
United Airlines wants to be a leader in distributing any potential coronavirus vaccine, which is deems as essential to its recovery. More broadly, United plans a renewed focus on customer service, which we all hope will not be Orwellian doublespeak.
Is United Airlines banking too much on a coronavirus vaccine? When will we know if a vaccination is effective on a longer-term basis?
image: United Airlines