Even as an aviation reporter, it’s not every day that I sit down for a lengthy one-on-one interview with the former CEO of one of America’s leading airlines. So when C-SPAN offered me the chance to speak with Oscar Munoz about his new book “Turnaround Time” for the network’s “After Words” show, I was more than happy to take it.
We certainly had a lot to talk about in the context of ongoing (though improving) staffing issues and high-end IT meltdowns, among other post-pandemic aviation issues. He even allowed me to ask a question I’ve been dying to ask an airline executive my entire career.
Here are some consumer-focused highlights from our conversation. If you want to see the full interview, watch the video embedded below.
These excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
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Question: You talk about hearing passengers complain that they have a negative view of air travel. Why do you think people generally view air travel negatively and how can this be addressed?
Answer: Of course we fly aircraft and take people from point A to point B, but it goes deeper than that, right? It’s more a matter of understanding that each person in each seat is traveling for something that is really important to them. Friendly skies and our slogan are important so that when you fly you feel it. The goal is to ensure that your employees are truly engaged in the process of taking care of all the services we provide.
Q: The average traveler probably perceives the CEO of an airline as possibly a little aloof. I’ve always wanted to ask an airline CEO: When did you fly economy class (did your United network listening tour early in your tenure)?
A: It depends on where you are going. We, at the time, still had a lot of these small, 50-seat planes that don’t have first class. And yes, most of the time, especially in the late morning or early morning, I would fly ahead, so it was a combination of those things.
I sat, mostly in an aisle seat, so I could get up and talk to the flight attendants… and talk to the customers, so I could roam the plane – safely, obviously, when we were doing that. So it was important to me not just to fly and talk to people, but to do it without a big group of people with me.
Q: One of the ways that United sets itself apart from its competitors is its commitment to sustainability. Why do you see sustainability as the big issue that United is positioned to address?
A: We burn, as an industry worldwide, about one hundred billion gallons of jet fuel. Shouldn’t we have a level of responsibility and awareness that the impact of this on this planet is not insignificant? … If you really believe that this level of carbon footprint has an impact, ask yourself: can you do something about it?
Given the nature of our business and the level of carbon emissions, it’s only a matter of time before something breaks in our system, so we should start planning ahead and thinking about what the future will look like.
Sustainable jet fuel is a great example for a few reasons. Yes, it’s better for the planet, but the way we started, and I started coercing in some way some of our leaders around the world in the airline industry, is the economic benefit. I’m not talking about social or political issues, but the fact that fuel, on an airline’s (profit and loss) sheet, is one of the biggest items on the line – one or two, besides manpower – and, more importantly, it is volatile.
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Q: Can you talk about how your background and experience positioned you to lead the airline when you were there?
A: People who are not in minority cohorts, it’s often difficult for people to understand what it means for a person of their own heritage to see another person of their heritage in a position of authority, of leadership. It’s exciting; it’s exciting, the level of response I would get when I went to many of our facilities.
We use a term “proud” in Spanish, which… I think people are genuinely so excited that someone like me could be in the role that I had.
Q: (During COVID) United has seen a 93% drop in demand. How did the airline, or any airline, survive and recover?
A: We had no idea how long this would last, we had no idea what level it would go to. So we started doing math. You asked the question: how do you survive? So you do the math: how long can you go before you go bust? Our large finance team has done some work.
We survived by staying a little ahead… and then we worked hard here in DC to get the CARES Act passed. Many people still… would classify it as an auto-industry-like bailout. If you look at the facts, the airline industry has never been in a better financial position than it was at the start of 2020.
If you want the economy to come back, you need business and commerce to come back. To have business and commerce you need to have people flying and you can’t do that without an airline and if we as an airline shut down and lay off all our people you just won’t get them back in a week or a month . Pilots have to constantly fly to be certified; therefore, if you send them home, you will have to spend a lot of time certifying them.
The things (airlines) can do financially are still constrained, so it wasn’t a handout, and it wasn’t a bailout… but I think it helped the US economy to start to recover.
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Q: You talk a lot about different stakeholders: there’s the passengers, there’s your employees, and there’s the company’s shareholders. If you had to pick just one, and I’m going to make you pick one, which of these stakeholders takes priority and why?
A: United’s turnaround story was (based on prioritization) our employees, because we couldn’t have done anything we’ve done without their full support and buy-in.
Today, if you asked me the same question, I think I would answer the same way: it’s the people who do the work. It is a decentralized workplace. It’s literally an individual. He or she needs to want to do the right thing for the right reasons, for our customers.
My advice to everyone in the industry is don’t lose your people. United lost their people and look how hard it was to get out of that.
After Words with Oscar Munoz
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org