Oscar Munoz Reverses Course, No Longer Wants Better Service at United

When Oscar Munoz took over at United he went around telling everyone who would listen that he needed to get employees motivated to provide great service. He ‘needed more Jennas’ telling a likely apocryphal story about a flight attendant whose caring service made all the difference to customers.

Yet through that, his most vivid recollection is Jenna. Jenna was the flight attendant on that miserable trip. “Throughout that whole disaster, her smile, her willingness to take care of everybody on that small flight, asking ‘more ice, more drinks, anything else I can do?’”

As he waited at the baggage carousel, he sidled up anonymously to a young couple and prodded them for complaints, “Can you believe how long this luggage thing is taking?” They agreed but quickly mentioned Jenna. “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?” Munoz called that a watershed moment for him as he takes the controls at the world’s second-largest airline. “Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said.

United CEO Oscar Munoz Before Media Preview Flight for New Boeing 777-300ER

He said that what United needed was “5,000 Jennas” to “make it work” at United.

This was October 2015. It was before he went out on medical leave. It was before he hired the President of American Airlines, whose prior experience had been running US Airways and America West, to become President of United.

And it was before forcing children with their own tickets to sit in parents laps instead of seats, having law enforcement remove passengers flying to their wedding, kicking a passenger in the head, and before we learned about a customer service agent pushing a 71 year old man to the ground… Let alone breaking a passenger’s face.

I think it’s safe to say that United Airlines hasn’t yet found sufficient Jennas to provide world class customer service to all its customers.

But Munoz is apparently now happy with the quality of service the airline provides because in opportunistically taking a shot against Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar — calling for protection of competition so that consumers don’t have a choice but to fly his airline — he suggests that United flight attendants are “world-class”, that he “cherish[es]” their contributions, and that he’s proud of “the qualities they bring to our team: intelligence and integrity; experience and empathy; care for our customers and one another.”

Above all, we value our employees’ dedication to the highest standards of professionalism and safety. These are the reasons why, wherever you travel, our employees say with equal pride and emphasis: ‘We are United.’

I am always deeply proud to say those words myself, knowing the incredible professionals with whom I am privileged to be associated. I want to express my deep gratitude to all our colleagues for what they do to keep us flying right, everywhere we serve.

United CEO Oscar Munoz Announcing Boarding for Chicago – San Francisco 777-300ER Preview Flight

His message is no longer, ‘come on folks, let’s pull together and ask out customers “anything else I can do?”‘ His message is that United’s flight attendants are already meeting the highest standards possible.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker referring to flight attendants at US Airways as ‘grandmothers’ was tone deaf at best. He’s often his own worst enemy giving soundbites that Delta can use in videos that seem to serve no purpose in their argument other than to appeal to the worst racist instincts Americans have of Middle Easterners.

Delta’s video shows Akbar al-Baker in a Middle Eastern thawb or cloak saying he would ‘do business with devil’ and giving an evil smirk (1m52s).

However al-Baker’s misogyny referring to US airline flight attendants as ‘grandmothers’ and suggesting only younger woman can provide good service in no way excuses Delta’s racism and fear-mongering). Akbar al-Baker has since apologized for his comments. On the other hand David Dao says Oscar Munoz never called him to apologize.

But Munoz, in declaring United to have reached the highest levels of service possible, makes the very real point that US airlines cannot compete for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with subsidies. The culture of customer service, as we’ve seen over the past three months vividly at United, is a real problem.

David Dao Dragged Off a Flight at O’Hare in April

The only way to fix it is competition. Delta, American, and United want to be protected from competition because they’re afraid it will hurt their business. But that’s the point — it will, unless they improve to compete. Acting as a quasi-public utility is a recipe for a continuation of the status quo, and no customer should want that.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well put Gary. I fly overseas twice a year and I avoid all US (and Canadian) airlines unless absolutely needed. In the race to the bottom, we are leading the charge. More competition is needed.

  2. I think you overreached here, and that your headline is terribly misleading. This looks like click bait, I’m disappointed to say.

    This statement wasn’t about wanting to improve United service. It was a defense against the ridiculously ageist and sexist statement made by the Qatar Airlines chief. That’s it.

    Your attempt to paint this as anything more merits you a position on Fox News, I’m afraid.

  3. What are ridiculous article and headline. Oscar, quite obviously, was not saying what you said he was. He, like any successful CEO, with supporting his employees, as you well know. The reason U.S. airlines are in the position that they are as far as staff is concerned, is because of labor laws. Labor laws that do not exist in the Middle East. I assume that you support labor laws when they benefit you or your family, but when they don’t allow US airlines to fire a flight attendant because she is too old, too heavy, or married etc. then you want to blame the airlines for our strict labor laws. Be careful what you wish for, and hope that the Trump administration doesn’t bring the no labor law concept to our shores. You can’t have your cake, and eat it too. He were to support the concept of labor laws or you don’t. If you do support the concept, then Middle East carriers should trouble you.

  4. @Bill Munoz’s statement is clear that United flight attendants are outstanding now. The point of the badly-put comment by Qatar’s CEO was that service on US airlines is awful. Munoz says United flight attendants are meeting the highest standards, a message that they DO NOT NEED TO IMPROVE.

    You can call it clickbait but not everything you disagree with is clickbait. I’m making an argument here. Don’t be persuaded, that’s fine (although the statements seem clear). But don’t dismiss the argument either, respond to it.

  5. @Mark H – it’s not illegal to negotiate contracts which award compensation based on things other than seniority, to offer pay for performance. Oscar Munoz had been sounding a tone about offering good customer service, but nowhere does he highlight that United is STRIVING TO BE BETTER at customer service, he says they’re already meeting the highest standards. That means there’s no more need to improve. That makes me sad.

  6. United does actually have bigger issues. Strategically they still seem a bit weak in my opinion. They made some missteps under Smisek and prior to that, which they haven’t really addressed. Who gives up slots at JFK? Who scales back at the 2nd biggest tech hub in the country, allowing Delta to clean up. Who actually tells their best customers they are over-entitled and not really valued any longer?

  7. Very twisted view and misleading headline. I believe in a global economy and have seen improvements in the US3, but the ME3 is only “better” because of billions in illegal subsidies. ME3 also has some very anti-women and anti-LGBT policies and cultures that I will not support.

    I truly believe in competition but not if its breaking the law.

  8. I can see both sides of the argument here. Oscar has been on the job almost two years, he pretty much has to say that they’ve improved. Otherwise, he would lose his employees and sound like a terrible boss. However, I see Gary’s point that he also should point out that they can still strive to be better. By saying what he said gives credence to opine that he is satisfied with the current state of United.

  9. Seriously ? Another United bashing article by Gary Leff. What a surprise. And of course there’s the obligatory picture of David Dao. You obviously have a grudge Mr Leff.

  10. Of course Munoz thinks United employees and service can improve. That wasn’t the point of his statement–which is obvious to anyone who isn’t prejudiced to simply hate United or who isn’t an idiot. Sorry…but it’s that obvious and blatant.

    Munoz was paying a little lip service to United employees…while making the big statement to refute the horrendously stupid and problematic statement by the Qatar CEO.

    Gary, sorry. On this, I think you goofed. This is, sadly, nothing but clickbait IMO.

  11. Forget politics and leftist agenda. Munoz is saying, UA is a great airline and we are awesome. As a pax, I disagree and I fly UA when I need to, but I am really not looking forward to it.
    When I hear SQ, QF, QR, etcI have positive expectations. When I hear UA, I do not. I have no agenda or desire to promote one airline over another. Simply one FF’s perspective

  12. United is great, healthcare is bad for you, 1 percenters need more tax breaks, fewer teeth in your mouth and more guns in your closet…

    Sad to see how ignorance is destroying a country.

    If United really wanted to improve, Jenna should be the new CEO, but wait, half of the country is so stupid that can’t recognize the Declaration of Independence when tweeted on NPR and thought it was a call for arms to remove their beloved “dick-tator”, so why do we need to improve???

  13. What part of flip floppin did I miss? United has one goal & only one goal, get all the revenue that you can & to hell with the passenger. It’s satify the stockholders & Board at what ever cost. United will never be a world class airline. Their customer service is as is most US Airlines, a joke! The JB, SWA, & Delta along with Alaska Air are at the top of the better carrier’s. The days of excellent service is a lost talent because of GREEDY Corporate Management. Even the employees feel it daily & are told to perform at whatever cost that fills the company coffers & screws the everyday passenger. This Oscar guy is a Fart in the Wind. Everytime he talks, out flows Bullshit. Read the reviews on Air North if you want to see how a real airline is run & how good the employees are & how the passengers are treated.

  14. I rarely fly domestically any more, but as far as paid airfare is concerned, I’ll opt for Jet Blue and Southwest if the airfare (cost) and flight schedules are similar. For international flights, I’d be inclined toward highly rated foreign airlines over their “mean streets” U.S. counterparts.

  15. The CEO supports his employees. That’s how you garner favor with them. I don’t see any quote that says we are the best airline and we can’t improve anywhere, I see a CEO encouraging his employees. The drumbeat of lets keep showing Dr Daos picture, and let’s bring up the occasional bad thing that happens on united here in every article is getting old. Oscar is MILES ahead of Jeff. United still has tons of work to do, but it’s getting better. Stop trying to say that United is the second coming of hell on earth or something.

  16. Pretty indicative of all US carriers,terrible!They need to take a look at SIA,exemplary service,fantastic cabin staff.Why would you bother using United?Cheers:):)

  17. Where will the isolationists and ardent blind defenders of MAGA go when every major blogger is writing similar articles about how United, Delta, and American propaganda and lobbying is a bad thing?

  18. I don’t understand the bashers, Gary. Long-time reader who continues to enjoy your postings. Keep up the good work.

  19. As a long time United employee, I will say yes, we as a company, have much more work to do in every aspect of our operation, however, much has also improved since Oscar took over the reigns of our company.
    It is the job of every CEO of every corporation, to defend and stand up for his/her employees, that is all Oscar was trying to do, no one can fault him for that.
    His leadership has brought on a revival at the deepest levels at United, prior to his arrival, we were a ship lost at sea, we now have hope.
    We are far from perfect but I promise everyone who flies with us, anyone who has stopped flying with us and are considering giving us a second chance, we wil always strive for you to receive the most sincere, genuine, attentive, service we can provide, you the flying public, deserve no less.
    Thank you for reading.

  20. Simply put, we are dealing with a decaying culture issue imbedded within the US airline industry since de–reg in 1978. Prior to de-reg, we actually experienced-and enjoyed-the competitive spirit between the legacy carriers. Just between ORD-LAX, their were 4 choices: Continental, American, TWA, and United. Also, planes were clean and passenger features in proper working condition.

    Fast forward and the only good, rare experience I had on United was this past February when I could not get on Lufthansa between Frankfurt-Dulles. Why? Because unlike prior international Business Class flights on United, this crew was a German crew based in Frankfurt; the difference was day and night in attitude, service, congeniality, and proper cooking of food!

    Today’s airline management suffers from the same lackadaisical spirit as previously identified in railroad management, when the Hepburn Act of 1906 controlled their rates and services; so, why bother. This static approach did not change until the Staggers Act 1980 de-regulated railroads.

    However, the airlines actually learned from how the railroads aggressively competed for passengers from the 1920s into the early 1960s, with feature equipment, expansive regional menus deliciously prepared, first class, the art of the cocktail, and fast schedules. Interestingly, it was excessive governmental regulations and union work rules, as well as government subsidization to build the airline and interstate infrastructure, that killed the passenger train.

    The point is when forced to compete, some slower rail lines competed on fare; others competed on speed, offering all first class trains, etc., as typified by Chicago-New York, Chicago-Minneapolis, and Chicago-Los Angeles. Today, we have Amtrak supposedly to provide a national network, but actually, merely focused on the Northeast Corridor. Underfunded as an orphan of the government, Amtrak has no competition; thus, remans static in its approach to the marketplace. Only where states have seized the initiative to plan and market regional trains, such as California, has rail traffic dramatically grown. However, their is no market interrupter in the foreseeable future, as Amtrak’s originating legislation and updates has ensured it would be prohibitive for a private rail operator to enter the market, either as a franchise bid or thru open access.

    In essence, although Southwest and Jet Blue have cutout their piece of the market, the legacy carriers are stuck in a static position after creating a combination that can throttle any new entry; fearing the threat of any potential competition.

    However, when it comes to the ME3, it’s threading the needle whether they represent pure competition as a market interrupter; or, the not too well disguise of massively infused national airlines that were previously known throughout Europe Canada, and Asia; Russia today.

  21. Hmmm…seems to that Oscar is saying that he respects his team’s dedication to high standards.

    Gary, you have provided no evidence that he has “reversed course” and longer wants better service.

    IMHO a very misleading headline and unsubstantiated position bordering on libel.

    Arguably, refreshing to have an airline boss praise staff rather than trash them publicly.

  22. I apologize for being late to this party. Many things talked about in this topic is news to me. Gary is defending, I believe, the right of a person to be treated like a human being when flying on United as well as any other carrier. Bringing up past incidences is vital in showing the flying public what you might experience on United. ONE screwup, even by an employee who might be having a bad day, is too much. I will never give my business to United. I will never give my business to Delta as well because of a experience I had with them. Maybe one day there will no more airlines that I will give my hard earned money to. If it comes to that, I suppose I will drive, but until you show these CEO’s they need to take things seriously, they will continue to dump on you. Keep up the good work, Gary. Until the naysayers have something done to them personaly by their airline of choice, they will continue to fly them and bash you.

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