United Airlines CEO Breaks Century Old Taboo, Questions Future Of Safety

In June the Biden administration announced a plan to require airlines to pay cash compensation to passengers for delays.

But they said they’d wait around six months for the Department of Transportation to publish a draft rule, virtually assuring that no requirement would be adopted before the election and making it something that Biden would need to be re-elected in order for consumers to benefit from.

At the time United Airlines CEO suggested that increasing the cost to airlines for delays would create an incentive to fly in marginal conditions, rather than playing it safe.

  • They won’t want to take mechanical delays.
  • They’ll want to push the envelope in weather, if compensation applies even in bad weather

Kirby repeated these concerns this week, “I do not want a pilot, I do not want a mechanic, thinking about the extra cost of delay when they’re thinking about a decision.”

He’s right at some level about the incentive, but oddly for someone that’s spent decades in aviation he seems to be lacking in context.

  • When airlines were regulated (government dictated which airlines flew where, and the prices they could charge) the goal was to ensure airlines were profitable. Consumers, who sometimes decry ‘deregulation’, forget that regulation was anti-consumer and tilted towards the airlines.

    The goal was to make sure flying made airlines money, because airlines that weren’t profitable (because of ‘ruinous competition’) might be tempted to skimp on safety. And yet this isn’t what happened!

  • In fact, the industry has only gotten safer throughout downturns, such as post-9/11 and the Great Recession and even the Covid-19 pandemic. Safety issues have most prominently come in recent years from government air traffic control more than commercial airlines.

  • Europe’s safety is on par with that of the United States, and they require passenger compensation under EU 261. Surely Kirby doesn’t think his joint venture partner Lufthansa is unsafe?

  • Airlines go bankrupt without compromising safety all the time, because safety ingrained as the very first thing that you do, and that every decision is a life or death decision. Those in the industry who got their start in the late 1970s and early 1980s have told me about sitting down and being told to watch film about Tenerife because they did anything else – and that’s even for staff not in operational roles – as part of ingraining a culture of safety.

Obviously United doesn’t want to pay increased compensation and there are likely to be good arguments to be made around the particulars of whatever the Biden administration ultimately releases. Safety is a trump card, but it’s one that Kirby shouldn’t play.

For nearly a decade there’s been a norm in the industry of not publicly questioning safety. You don’t spread rumors about the safety of competitors, although this norm does seem to be breaking down. I’ve heard stories of airline sales teams breaking it lately, perhaps one consequence of significant employee turnover during the pandemic is that many norms don’t carry over.

Historically the airline industry believed that confidence in safety mattered for all of them and that lapses or perceived lapses even at a competitor was bad for everyone. That view maybe doesn’t hold as much anymore, if you listed to the CEO of United.

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. The reality is that it is UNITED, not competitors, that will suffer because of being forced to make decisions about whether to operate flights based on financial considerations.
    As the US airline with the oldest fleet and with Kirby’s plan to use new aircraft deliveries for growth rather than fleet replacement, it is United that is risking high compensation costs since older aircraft by nature simply require more maintenance.
    And frontline personnel – pilots and mechanics do not and should not consider financial implications of their decisions.
    They should run the operation and AFTER THE FACT UA’s management needs to do what is necessary to minimize the costs but they cannot tell “production” employees to even consider financial impacts of their actions.

  2. Leaving Scott Kirby’s comments beside and looking at it from a higher level perspective:
    The bigger airlines will have an advantage here as they can rebook people through other hubs and flights. We don’t know what the Biden administration is exactly planning, but if it is similar to the European regulation it could lead to:
    – Flight times padded for unforseen circumstances
    – Airlines buying newer airplanes
    – Airlines increasing fares to make up for the additional costs
    – Having more spare planes on the ground which brigs additional costs.
    – A little bit more reliable airline flying for the passengers

    Weather delays are not covered under the EU regulation and most technical delays are not 3 hours or longer. ATC delays are exempted in Europe as well. I really don’t know if the additional costs would be worth the gain in more reliability. The delay data is easily available. However, it would most likely end Delta’s practice of delaying flights into another day to make the cancelation statistic look better.

  3. Safety is a culture that starts at the top. Historically United has been one of the safest. If If Kirby is concerned with safety he is in the exact position to make sure that pilots and mechanics don’t make compromising decisions based on this new proposed regulation. He could set a strong tone in safety procedures inside the company by ensuring safe decisions versus just talk, and strictly disciplining anyone who cuts corners. To save money.

  4. Agreed with James. The supposed problem Kirby cites is entirely within his power to fix. If he tells employees safety comes first and doesn’t make compensation in any way dependent on whether compensation has to be paid to passengers, I guarantee the employees aren’t going to cut corners to avoid passenger compensation.

  5. Every time I leave a comment criticizing an air carrier by name, it’s deleted. This is ridiculous.

  6. No pilot or mechanic that I’ve ever encountered has uttered the words, “Gee, this maintenance delay might cost the company more money.” If there are any out there that do, they are an extreme minority.

  7. He is deflecting the blame for his own poor decisions and incompetence on regulation and consumer protection.
    How about protection from the billions of dollars the airlines have made from devaluing frequent flier account balances? How is that different from a bank heist? Kirby is just a poser.

  8. Agree with @james!
    Kirby could say to the team: “We may have to pay for delays, but I don’t want you to think about that. Safety is more important.”
    Instead he implies that united will be forcing mechanics to choose between safety and costs.

  9. First, the article is wrong in saying airlines go bankrupt without compromising safety. I think the author is confusing a lack of accidents with safety. You can drive wrecklessly and not get in an accident. That doesn’t mean it was safe.

    Second, to those that say the CEO controls how people think, I have to laugh very hard. Pilots and mechanics do create their own internal pressures knowing the consequences of their actions. The CEO can talk until he’s blue in the face, can send out daily memos and codify everything in manuals and that won’t change how people behave.

  10. Well, as a businessman, he obviously will decry anything that will increase the expenses of United and then blow smoke up everyone’s collective arses about it.

    Can’t really blame him tbh. Sensible people still need to make sensible regulations.

  11. A pilot or mechanic is only going to make decisions based on cost to the airline if management penalizes them for making decisions not taking into account cost to the airline.

    If management doesn’t make it an issue it won’t be.

  12. 20,000 hours in the flight deck over 40 years the cost of a decision never entered into the thought process. It was safe and doable or it wasn’t. Of course I worked for good operators with a responsible attitude. Maybe United….

  13. Wasn’t this the same guy who said that airline service would get worse if the government banned them from indefinitely imprising.passengers during delays (tarmac delay regulations)?

    Hardly credible. But then this blogger was against them too.

  14. I think that people have gone too far in thinking that they should be compensated for airline delays. It’s an entitled culture. You are not compensated for a late bus, a late Uber or a late train. If that’s the case I wish I could be compensated by the person who ties up traffic with broken down cars or causing traffic accidents

    It’s gone too far.

    I wish I could press the reset button.

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