[LISTEN] How Scott Kirby Ensures Staff Take Pride in United Airlines


Image via United Airlines

In a special APEX/IFSA EXPO edition of its newly launched Future Screen podcast, Spafax’s CEO Niall McBain hosted a CEO Roundtable discussion together with Scott Kirby, chairman of the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors and United Airlines CEO; and APEX/IFSA CEO, Dr. Joe Leader.

The discussion in the latest episode of Spafax’s Future Screen podcast centers around the slew of improvements that United is making to the passenger experience.

The carrier recently announced it is adding hundreds of new jets to its fleet, all featuring seatback in-flight entertainment, Bluetooth audio and in-seat power. For Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ CEO, this creates a memorable experience in terms of both the hard and soft elements of the flight: “I’ve flown on some airlines where employees are apologizing for things that don’t work or for a subpar product … If employees are proud of the product, it makes it much easier to deliver great customer service,” he explained. 

And for Kirby, the importance of employees’ pride in United goes beyond just its products and services. “Making everyone proud of United is frankly our goal. It was easier during the pandemic in some ways, but we’re dedicated and committed to making sure that stays the case going forward,” he said.  

United plans on ensuring its workforce remains proud by “constantly doing new initiatives that nobody else in aviation has done yet,” but also by eliminating obstacles, such as change fees, for example. “United is the only airline in the world that I know that’s gotten rid of delay codes,” Kirby added. These codes attribute responsibility for flight delays. “It just creates these finger-pointing episodes where employees, instead of being a team and taking care of their customers, they are thinking about who is going to get blamed for a one-minute delay.”

Another important focus for United is honesty and transparency. This applies to its communication with passengers about delays, which Dr. Leader had personal experience of when he was told that his flight delay was due to the first officer’s wife being taken ill. “Instead of chaos at the gate, there was a heartfelt side to it,” Dr. Leader recounted. Kirby commented, “We won’t be perfect … and there will be times we don’t communicate well … but we continually try to get better and try to fix the things that make people so frustrated.”

Transparency is also a quality Kirby believes is central to a successful approach to sustainability, which he is passionate about. “This isn’t unique to aviation, it’s true in lots of companies. They have got to stop viewing climate change as a marketing issue. If the people that are responsible for climate activities report to marketing, you can almost be sure that it’s going to be a bunch of BS … If people don’t stop lying about it, we’ll never get it fixed,” he concluded.

Listen to to full podcast to hear Kirby talk about how his young son’s behavior during flights inspired him, why United took such a strong stance on vaccinating its staff against COVID-19, the evolution of United’s route network as it recovers from the pandemic, and his ambitions as chairman of the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors.

Read the full transcript of the podcast below. 

Niall McBain: Hello, everyone. And welcome to a special APEX Edition of Future Screen, the podcast that flies into the future of out of home marketing, travel media, and onboard entertainment. In each episode, we meet the inside leaders for these colliding industries. I’m Chief Executive at Spafax, Nial McBain and host for today’s CEO Roundtable. 

In this episode, you’re going to hear from two very special guests as we discuss the new normal across the passenger experience industry, from digitalization, to evolving passenger expectations, and more. 

I’m first joined by Dr. Joe Leader, CEO at APEX, the only Association dedicated entirely to advancing the airline passenger experience globally and for over four decades. Welcome, Joe.

Dr. Joe Leader: Thank you so much, Nial. I really appreciate it. It’s my honor to be here with you today. But I’m quite the secondary guest compared to our star this year, the one person throughout our industry that has really set a new bar for airlines and advancing quickly after the pandemic has been United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby. He is serving this year as the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors Chairman and Keynote Speaker at APEX Expo coming up on November 30. So, Scott, thanks so much for joining us today.

Scott Kirby: Thanks, Joe. Good to be here.

Nial McBain: Great to meet you, Scott. 

Scott, United made some major shifts this year. What are you most proud of as you blaze to pass forward for the new United Airlines?

Scott Kirby: I’m most proud of the culture of leadership and customer service that we have created at United. United has restored our position as a leader in the industry. And we’re going to talk a lot, I’m sure today, about all the customer service enhancements we’ve made, the hard products, the improvement in the customer service, which is great. But it goes far beyond that. We’ve been a leader in safety, the first airline to require masks on airplane. The only airline to run APUs. Not just the only airline to have a full vaccine requirement, but I think the largest, 

highest, profile company in the country to do that and to prove that you can do it by getting the 99.7% of our people vaccinated. The leadership role that we have taken, not just in global aviation, but amongst global companies is something that all of us United-er’s are just really proud of.

Nial McBain: That’s really well said Scott. One of the things that I’m so very proud of United blazing a path for using vaccination as keeping your crew members and passengers safe. And the other thing that was remarkable this year from United Airlines was such a large new aircraft order that was placed. And it really will change the future of United Airlines and air industry. How do you believe that the fleet change will enhance the digitalization of passenger experience moving forward as we look beyond the immediate horizon to the longer term?

Scott Kirby: Yes, there’s a bunch that is going to change in the years to come in a much better way for passengers. The aircraft order, of course, will be great, 500 airplanes coming in the next five years. 

But I think more significantly for passengers is probably what the onboard product is going to be. And not only are we taking 500 new airplanes, but we’re also going to retrofit all of our domestic aircraft to have this new standard where every seat has seat-back entertainment in it. Every seat has power for Bluetooth connection to that seat-back entertainment, large enough overhead bin that every customer can bring a roller-bag on board, Wi-Fi that actually works. It’s just going to be a great product by creating a great product. That’s good for the obvious reasons. But it also creates an environment where our employees are proud of the product. I’ve flown on some Airlines and when the employees are apologizing for things that don’t work or for a subpar product, you just start behind the eight ball. Employees are proud of the product, it makes it that much easier to deliver great customer service. 

And we are also focused on the digital experience, just making it easier to travel. We’ve done all kinds of things. Right now, if you want to book a trip to Europe, it’s far easier on United. You can upload your vaccine card, all your information digitally, be approved far in advance, not have the uncertainty, the difficulty of going to the airport, and that’s technology we started working on last summer because we knew this was a possibility.

We are doing things to communicate with customers when there’s a weather delay or a maintenance delay or anything else. Far more than any airline anywhere in the world that I know of. We never want to have a delay for anything, but they are going to happen in aviation. And the best thing we can do is be open, honest, and transparent with customers. These are just some of the examples. There are just hundreds of things that are happening at United. 

From the newspaper you can see some of the high-profile things that United is doing that are different than everyone else. But for every one thing that you read about in the newspaper, there’s 50 things that you don’t read about in the newspaper that are making the customer experience unique and better at United. 

Nial McBain: That sounds an amazing and comprehensive strategy. How much of it was due, do you think, to pressures from the pandemic itself and the kind of changes that were forced on the group?

Scott Kirby: It was accelerated. I think we made a decade worth of progress, and the pandemic made it in a way easier because a crisis either tears a team apart or brings them together. And there’s a lot of companies, not just airlines, that I think you can see it today, conflict within the companies and employees at headquarters protesting what’s going on at their company. It brought the team together at United. And it was an environment where you could make changes and have the rope to make changes that would have been harder at other times. And then when those changes work, it makes people proud. And we use that as a culture change. 

I started at the top by talking about culture change. It’s probably one of the most important things we’ve done. We have changed the culture. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks talking about, how do we make sure we keep that culture intact? Because in a way, it’s easier when you’re in a crisis. But maintaining that culture of leadership, one of the things I’ve said to the team is just constantly doing new initiatives that nobody else in aviation has done yet. That’s one of the ways we will generate pride. But also make our customers happier and feel better. Just making everyone proud of United Airlines is frankly our goal. It was easier in the pandemic in some ways, but we’re dedicated and committed to making sure that stays the case going forward. It is also a lot more fun coming to work when you are proud. 

Dr. Joe Leader: Well, Scott, you’ve done an incredible job making United really shine under your leadership. And I know you treat your team members there like an extended family. Jumping to your real-life family, you credited your son as an influencer upon you earlier this year for adding hundreds of thousands of inflight entertainment screens to your fleet. What are the lessons do you believe that the upcoming generation will remind us of in the improvement of airline passenger experience?

Scott Kirby: Yeah, my son was partly responsible for it. It’s remarkable to watch a six- or seven-year-old, six at the time, you get on an airplane. He never watches TV at home. He only uses the device. But for some reason he gets on an airplane and loves having that screen in front of him and loves the opportunities. That story was he played battleship. He didn’t even watch something, played battleship against somebody on the airplane and just had a blast. My wife says it’s the best flight she’s ever taken with him too because he didn’t drive her crazy the whole time. 

I think that the next generation expects fast, easy, intuitive, digital services. I talked earlier about the communicating openly, honestly, and transparently with customers. There are some of the things that we’ve done in the past at United for other airlines, where you watch a rolling delay and no one tells you what’s going on, you sit there at the gate and the screen says flights going to depart at 02:00 and it’s 2:15 and then all of a sudden, the screen updates to 2:30 and then 2:45 and updates to 3:00, and nobody ever tells you anything. And they just feel the temperature going up in the boarding area. Or if you try, we used to send this note to the customers at United. We don’t do this note anymore. But a few years ago, that we were trying to get better at it, and we’d say, “Due to operational disruptions, your flight is delayed.” Like, what the heck does that mean? It’s not unique to the next generation. I think everyone wants to know what’s going on, but their expectations are higher because they have so many more places that they have access to information and see what’s going on. So, trying to meet those expectations.

Nial McBain: Can I just jump in with a Scott Kirby insight just to ask you like what you’ve observed of yourself in terms of your own consumer behavior through this change?

Scott Kirby: Well, I’m probably not the best insight for consumer behavior because I hardly buy anything. My wife does most of it. My wife did at one point early in the pandemic, as Amazon 

was delivering lots and lots of stuff and groceries were showing up at the house. She’s been doing stuff for us and looked up at me and said, “I’m a really good online shopper.” And I’m like, “I know you are.” But I’m not much of a shopper, so I don’t think I have the best personal insight, other than to find great people who do have the insights at United Airlines to figure out what consumers really want.

The biggest thing to me, probably, from United perspective of what we’re doing that I’m passionate about on this consumer point, just tell people what’s going on. The way I say it to our team is, I want you to pretend that I’m on the airplane and I have called the network operations center for a flight, when I’m on a flight delay, and ask what’s happening. What would you tell me? I want you to say the same thing to customers proactively. Just tell them what’s going on.

Dr. Joe Leader: That’s so wise. Scott, I remember I had come up to United Airlines headquarters a few years ago and my flight back to Atlanta. I sent your head of customer experience a screenshot of the very message you cited, which was the most nebulous thing, and I said, this has to change. You have to give more details. 

And I was on a flight recently and they said to me, the first officer, his wife had an emergency. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital and gave the most detailed explanation that I had ever heard. And instead of chaos of the gate, it was really that heartfelt side to it. What do you think is increasing the heart from United Airlines employees? Because I’ve seen it more and more as I’ve traveled on United. It’s great to see almost this mindset shift.

Scott Kirby: Yeah. So that goes to the culture change. And the reality is the vast majority of the employees at United are people/people. They care about customer service. They want customers to feel good. They want customers to be proud of the airline. But they’ve been constrained or felt constrained for years. My job, I wind up saying it’s pretty simple, I have one of the easiest jobs of anyone at the airline. Because I really only have one responsibility, which is make our employees and our customers proud. That is really how I think of my job.

But when our employees are proud of the product of the stands that we’ve taken publicly on sustainability, diversity, vaccine, it puts them in a position to really feel and do the right thing for 

customers. But beyond that, we had to eliminate obstacles. Things like change fees, get in the way of doing the right thing for customers, connection safety. When you’re a gate agent and you’ve been forced for 30-years to slam the door in customer faces knowing you could get them on that airplane and get them there on time and them begging you to open the door and you are not allowed to. Then your management team comes and tells you, they want you to do the right thing for your customers. You think your management team is full of you know what. Because they were and it is inconsistent with creating the right customer service culture. 

Delay code is another example. United is the only airline in the world that I know that’s gotten rid of delay code. You have these just finger pointing episodes where employees, instead of being a team taking care of their customers, are thinking who is going to get blamed for that one-minute delay? You have to eliminate those obstacles. And it just creates a new environment where they are proud and they aren’t feeling constrained and they believe that the company is now actually finally in their career serious about letting them be empowered to do the right thing for the customer. And that’s liberating, for the vast majority of them. And they feel good. And when they feel good. They deliver. 

Dr. Joe Leader: That’s really well said. Let me ask a follow up, because for 99.7% of your employees, they must be super proud of the leadership role that you took as the first US airline CEO to mandate the vaccines for all of your employees successfully, out of care for not having to lose more employees than you did to COVID. You told me the story of how you wrote letters to pilots that you had lost and to others and how much that affected you. What advice would you give to others around the world looking to successfully follow in the footsteps of United Airlines, doing the right thing by their people?

Scott Kirby: Be decisive and do the right thing and do it for the right reason. It’s remarkable to me watching others waffle, be wishy washy, try to blame the government instead of just owning the decision. Look, we’ve got people in that 99.7%, that still don’t like it. But because we were open, and honest, and transparent, and we said why we were doing it, they at least understand why we were doing it. They might not agree with the decision, but they understand why we were doing it. We just haven’t had this conflict and difficulty that others are having. But we were also uncompromising about it. We didn’t have debates about whether it was right or wrong. I was 

empathetic that there are people that disagree, and I accept that they disagree. But our response was always, my responsibility is safety number one, and we take that seriously at United and you all know that. I think it’s the safest thing to do. I’m confident it’s going to save lives. I respect that you disagree, but you now have a decision to make. We didn’t have a debate about it. And because we were firm about it, we got the 99.7% and it’s past us now. And it really has become a point of pride with most of our employees and even those that didn’t agree because they at least understand, for the most part, the rationale. It’s not a contentious issue at all at United.

Nial McBain: Scott, if I may, I want to move the conversation to what the new normal passenger experience is? And how customer expectations are evolving and bearing in mind this podcast will be listened to by people in the passenger experience audience, so to speak. And from the message I’m taking, inferring from what you’re saying is that, yes, entertainment is really important. But what has changed, what’s evolving is the level of communication that is needed between the brand and the passenger in that experience. Is that fair?

Scott Kirby: Yeah. All of it is going to evolve. And I think for the first time, there are other airlines around the world to do this, but certainly for the first time at United, and I think more unique even North America creating a brand, having United be a brand that the customers are proud of. And we won’t be perfect. We will have maintenance delays. We will certainly have weather delays. And there will be times we don’t communicate well. And we know we won’t be perfect. But as we continually try to get better and try the things that make people so frustrated and try to make them better and fix them. I think we’re going to continue to get better.

And as you look through the pandemic, there’s basically only been one large airline here in the United States that at some point hasn’t had an operational meltdown. That’s because we didn’t get out over our skis and we intentionally didn’t. Even though we’d be as excited about demand coming back as anyone. but we’re not going to put the schedule and our customers at risk in the short term by stretching to do more than we are confident we can do effectively. And that philosophy is just different. I have watched some of the things happening at some airlines, and I’m not trying to pick on any individual airline. I have watched it happening. And it’s like, what are you doing? You’re flying a few extra flights and then the first thing goes wrong, and you just cascade into meltdown. How can you do that? We just have a different philosophy. I know we 

won’t be a perfect. I know we will make mistakes. But we’re genuinely focused on trying to make it an experience that customers aren’t complaining or dreading the airline flight. They can look forward to it, hopefully. But at least have confidence that we’re going to be always trying to do the right thing.

Dr. Joe Leader: Scott, speaking of doing the right thing, the one thing that’s very fun about you is at heart, you are such an aviation routes and network enthusiasts. It’s been fun to watch United’s creativity in play in the routes that you’re opening up for passengers. And just recently, the announcement that you’re going to be doing seven flights a day between Newark and London, it’s bordering upon a shuttle at that point. What’s the vision? Are things going to go that back to normal, where seven flights today to London, it’s going to be eight soon.

Scott Kirby: Well, I think for United, it is going to be unique for our route network and where we fly around the globe. We’ve always had the best hubs for the global network. During the pandemic, we were unique and not retiring any of our widebody aircraft. And basically, all of our large competitors in Europe and the Americas retired a huge portion of their wide body fleet. We now have about as many international wide body aircraft as all the other U.S. airlines combined. And so, we are in a unique position.

As we went through the pandemic, we also realized because of where our hubs are, because of our product, because of our history and experience uniquely positioned to break into new markets, whether it’s Ghana or new service to Amon, Jordan or Bergen, Norway. And it’s kind of actually been a little unnerving. But also cool that the network department sends me some ideas, sends me batch for routes that they want to fly. And in the last year, for the first time in my career, I see the three letter airport codes and I have to go Google the airport. Because for the first time, they’re putting airports in it that I don’t know the airport codes, which has been great. And it’s been successful. I think it’s going to be a big differentiator. I think if you are a global traveler that wants to go or needs to go to multiple places around the globe, United is going to be uniquely positioned to get you around the globe to all the big international destinations here in the United States.

Nial McBain: United announced a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, without carbon offsets, and I’ve certainly read of some really bold measures that you’re taking. So, I’m wondering if you can share a bit with us? 

Scott Kirby: So, our sustainability goals, we are without question the leader in global aviation. We are one of the leading companies on real, not greenwashing, but real sustainability efforts. And there are three legs to that stool. The one that’s most specific to aviation is sustainable aviation fuel. And United Airlines currently, our commitment to sustainable aviation fuel is more than twice as much as all the rest of the world airlines combined. We are also, by the way, focused on doing that without using farm products, because that has lots of other environmental harm. That’s a unique point for United Airlines, one that I hope everyone else will ultimately come on board with, because if we’re growing corn, or soybeans, or palm oil to create fuel, that creates all kinds of other environmental issues around the world. 

Second is technology. We’re the first to invest in electric aircraft. And that leg of the stool is going to be interesting. But electric aircraft, for example, are never going to replace big airplanes flying long distance, at least not in the next 50-years. The energy density, there’s just not even anything on the theoretical physics drawing board has enough energy density to work for big airplanes flying long distance for batteries.

But the third and probably most important leg of what we’re doing is carbon sequestration. And this is not using what is, frankly, green washing, or saying that planting trees is going to get us to net zero. And the issue with that, there is nothing wrong with planting trees. It’s good. There’s simply not room on the planet to plant enough trees to make a dent in global emissions. And when almost every company, this isn’t just airlines, when almost every corporation is pretending to be at net zero by using carbon offset by planting trees, we will never come close to beginning there. If we planted every green, every spot, every acre on the planet that could grow trees, it accounts for less than five months of mankind’s energy. Obviously, we’re never going to do that because we need farms to grow food, for example. But when everyone is using that tiny opportunity as a way to get to zero emissions, it just won’t work for the globe. This isn’t unique to aviation. This is about every hard, decarbonized industry. We’ve got to stop pretending that carbon offsets are the answer, or we will not even begin to solve this problem.

Dr. Joe Leader: Scott, let me do a follow up on that because it’s an interesting world that we have when airlines are able to say we are net zero because of carbon offsets. And United is saying, well, that’s not good enough. We need to invest more towards our future towards sustainable aviation fuel, towards carbon capture, towards new technologies to take us from point A to B. What’s your recommendation for the industry as we move forward into that? Because, for example, in sustainable aviation fuel, we have a goal by the end of this decade to take us up to a percentage of jet fuel in the United States. But it’s a reach there. We are going to have to see some major technological hurdles overcome where we can take consumer waste and turn it into sustainable aviation fuel or some of the more recent studies that show that you could turn plastic bottles into aviation fuel. What do you think is going to be the breakthrough ahead? And how do you make United’s message clear when others are saying we’re net zero now?

Scott Kirby: I think the most important thing is honesty. And companies, this isn’t unique aviation, it’s true in aviation, but it’s true in lots of companies. They have got to stop viewing climate change as a marketing issue. If the people that are responsible for climate activities report to marketing, you can almost be sure that it’s going to be a bunch of BS. This is true in a lot of companies. The people that make the marketing claims so far in aviation, I’m not talking about any names, but it’s just not honest. And we have to be honest, or we won’t ever solve this problem. Pretending that an airline has solved this today, it’s not solved. We need significant investment in sustainable aviation to make this real. We need real carbon sequestration of some sort to make this real. And pretending to say, we’re going to pay somebody a token amount of money to not cut down a forest, that’s never been cut down in the history of mankind, it’s just a bunch of, pardon my language, crap. And if people don’t stop lying about it, we’ll never get it fixed.

Nial McBain: Good answer. Before we wrap up, what are you hoping to inspire other airlines to advance for 2022 as chairman of the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors? 

Scott Kirby: Well, I hope, actually, particularly on sustainability, that this will not be a sustained competitive advantage for United. There’s no question right now that United is the leader in global aviation on sustainability efforts. But I don’t want that to be the case. I used the statistic earlier that our commitment to sustainable aviation fuel is more than double all the rest of the 

world airlines combined. I look forward to other airlines surpassing us and us trying to catch up with them. I look forward to others doing real innovative activities with sequestration that we can then try to copy. And I hope that that will happen. 

Similarly on safety efforts, one of the other things that at APEX/IFSA, we made a priority this year coming out of the pandemic on issues like vaccine requirements. That we just get everyone, it’s not competitive, that we get everyone vaccinated and do the right thing for safety. Particularly on safety and sustainability. Frankly, they are competitive advantages for where United is right now. But I don’t want it to be. I just want everyone else to do the right thing because those are just the right things to do. Those are not areas we should be competing on, ultimately. Because we should all be focused on doing the right thing. 

So, I hope that in 2022, we make progress. We are making progress; I think we are making progress on those kinds of tones. The conversations, the tone. The tone is different at many airlines around the world. Everyone is not there yet. But I think the pendulum is swinging towards doing the right thing. Some places people are convinced it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they’re perhaps being coerced to do the right thing. But regardless of why the pendulum does feel like they’re swinging to doing the right thing more and more.

Dr. Joe Leader: I think you’re having a huge influence, Scott. Airlines are really taking this more seriously. When I have airlines like Saudia, for example, speaking of what they can do in the world of sustainability, that just shows how far this is reached. When you have the leading oil producing country in the world saying, we need to make sure sustainability is part of our DNA. That just goes to show how far reaching it is.

Scott Kirby: It’s good to hear.

Nial McBain: I wish you both well on it. I think it’s a really important time and I think it’s great that you’re pushing that agenda. And I just want to thank you both, Joe and Scott, for coming in today. It’s been really interesting talking with you. And thank you to all our listeners, too. We look forward to seeing many of you in person at the APEX Expo in Long Beach, California, from November 30 to December 2. 

Scott, we’re very much looking forward to your keynote session on the opening day at the APEX Expo. And Joe, a very special thank you to you and the APEX team for all your efforts to make this Expo happen. Connecting in person is long overdue for all of us, for the industry at large. And I know the team at Spafax are excited to reconnect with colleagues and partners. 

And finally, if you’re listening and happened to be at APEX Expo this year, we’d love to see. So, make sure you stop by and say hi at the Spafax stand. Thank you very much.