United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby’s Nose Is Growing On Seat Back Televisions

United Airlines didn’t just announce a major aircraft order today, they pitched a plan to offer a more premium flight experience. A symbol of that plan is to offer seat back entertainment screens to all passengers, not just on new planes but retrofitting the existing fleet as well.

CEO Scott Kirby isn’t just arguing that these are important to passengers. He isn’t just saying that he’s had a change of heart, covering not just United’s opportunities going forward but at his previous airlines that haven’t made similar investments. He is throwing shade at other airlines, saying he’s always been a proponent of seat back entertainment but has been stymied.

Live and Let’s Fly quotes Kirby at a briefing on the announcement, “I put seatback screens on at my last airline, and they got removed after I left.”

His claim is that he wanted seat back entertainment at American Airlines, and they ditched the plan after he was no longer there. Live and Let’s Fly explains that Kirby meant “At American Airlines, Kirby added seatback screens to many jets only to see them taken out when he left for United Airlines.”

Each word Kirby says here is technically accurate but utterly disingenuous. Screens were in new planes being delivered while Kirby was at American and he left before the plan to pull them out was actually implemented. But that’s now the impression he’s trying to give.

For some background, Scott Kirby has never seemed to zero in on a passenger experience element he couldn’t cut. For instance,

  • As President of US Airways he removed seat power from aircraft that had it prior to their acquisition by America West.
  • As President of US Airways he introduced a plan to charge for water and eliminated elite bonus miles.
  • At United Airlines he implemented cut after cut to the Polaris business class product, reducing flight attendant staffing in international business class and moving to pre-plated meals, cutting bloody mary and mimosa carts and flights of wine. They stopped proactively offering midflight snacks, and eliminated the soup course back when the airline still had first class.

A decade ago Kirby explained the only reason US Airways even added inflight internet – and they were late to do it – was because they saw they were losing ticket sales by not having wifi. Until that point he dismissed it, arguing that they weren’t going to make money selling it.

So maybe Kirby thought that other elements of service didn’t matter, but seat back video did? He never added it at US Airways, but perhaps he didn’t feel they were in a financial position to make the investment (but that after $10 billion in federal subsidies during the pandemic United is).

But let’s look at the facts,

  • He didn’t green light a plan for seat back screens at American. That’s simply not true. American’s Airbus A321s with TVs at every seat began getting delivered a month before the US Airways merger closed. Kirby wasn’t even on site when the airline started getting these planes. (The first Boeing 737-800 with screens at every seat was delivered the day after the merger closed. Of course the plan to put them in was inked much earlier.)

  • When legacy US Airways Airbus A319s were being reconfigured to match the American Airlines configuration, those planes weren’t given seat back screens even though the American A319s which were delivered before Kirby was in charge had them.

  • Planning for the new domestic interior at American Airlines, which meant pulling out seat back screens, began while he was President of American, even though the first plane with this interior wasn’t delivered until after he left.

Seat Back Entertainment At American Airlines, Pre-Scott Kirby

Scott Kirby was responsible for American Airlines adopting a revenue-based mileage program that mimicked United Airlines and Delta over the objections of the AAdvantage team. As President of American he was sufficiently in the weeds that he chose Platinum Pro at the name for the program’s new 75K elite tier, even though it wasn’t what the AAdvantage team liked.

It’s great to the United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby say that he wants to make the carrier the preferred one for customers. Seat back video screens is a good symbol of that commitment. But rather than a long-stifled champion of the concept, he owns American Airlines not having these screens today. Now he’s preparing to beat them because of the past decisions he made at his own airline which frankly seems fitting.

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. You know, if some CEO B.S. is the price to pay for a better quality experience, I’m OK with it. I can wink-wink and nod-nod along and enjoy the ride…

  2. I haven’t yet met a United employee that has a kind word to say about him, and I fly around 200 legs per year.

  3. He’s full of it, but at least he can articulate a position and move forward, unlike AA who continues to suggest that operating like Spirit, but “with a network” merits a revenue premium. If only my misconnects at the aggressively banked hubs wasn’t stuck at 20% I’d be OK with that. But I will never know as I’ve lost patience.

  4. Thanks, Gary, for speaking the truth here and presenting the facts.

    A couple of observations from a frequent flyer..

    (1) With this “customer service” dog ‘n pony show today, I guess UAL has finally run out of things to be “woke” about.. 327 press releases (I exaggerate slightly, ha) on he, she, they pronouns.. being environmentally correct.. you name it, UAL has issued a press release in recent months. NOW they get to customer service issues. Finally.

    (2) Everyone needs to remember this UAL press conference and the date.. 29 July 2021. Given UAL’s history of Polaris.. introduced 2 June 2016.. having many of its features then stripped and still the Polaris cabins have not been completely implemented to today, I will be surprised if UAL, given their track record, can complete today’s cabin “re-do” before 2030. Sorry, but, reality. .

    (3) If you’re truly interested in customer service, UAL, how about a press conference to announce..
    .. exact reopening dates of the majority of the non-hub United Clubs (waaaay behind AA, DL in getting this done) – I understand the status of the Polaris Lounges given the overall lack of international customers, but how about working to TRY to be proactive about the PLs and announce some approximate dates instead of being reactive which is what you’ve been with United Clubs, IHMO.
    .. that you are getting cabin service back to pre Covid19 levels.. bottom line.. “touch points” = BS with Covid19. Stop serving “sealed” meals in premium classes. How about returning to the use of glasses in premium class (rather than cheap plastic cups)? I find it interesting that most international carriers have already returned to their first/business class services.. only the US carriers seem to be stuck on this which is simply, let’s admit it, a cost saving measure.

    (4) Finally, why do I think, after watching the press conference today, that Scott Kirby would fit in perfectly in DC with the politicians?? (Not a compliment, by the way.. ha) Mislead.. nose grows.. repeat.. repeat.. repeat.. and the public believes it all.. sound familiar?


  5. I knew that Kirby was a wretched, amoral human being but now he can add liar to the list.

  6. I said this in a previous thread abut Kirby.

    United hired John Earnest, Obama’s Press Secretary,, to be chief communications officer at United. I am sure that Earnest has taught Kirby how to spin. “Scot,, it’s ok to curt back, but call it an enhancement.” “Scott, nobody will challenge you (except maybe Gary Leff LOL) for saying you were ALWAYS in favor of seatback video.” And “just make it seem like you’re talking our of school when you rewrite history.”

    I mean, why would United need a former press secretary if they weren’t trying to “stay on message.”?

    Kirby was a bean counter…a cutter…and now all of a sudden he’s changed???

  7. Thank you, Gary.
    The irony is that the one airline Scott Kirby hasn’t been at is Delta and one move after another, including every key element of what was announced today, is a copy of what Delta did – in most cases 5 plus years ago.

  8. By the time (if/when) UA gets all these new “enhancements” on their planes in 20-30 years (yeah we’re dangling the carrot on the stick to “woo” you back), they’ll be so outdated and worn out, it won’t be worth flying them – ever!

  9. The maximum length of United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby’s nose growing out of television seatbacks is directly proportional and limited to the reducing seat pitch between the aircraft rows.

  10. Scott peed in Gary’s cereal this morning.

    Chill, dude.

    So Kirby us a liar. Ok. 800 words to say thay? How did this tirade help any of us?

  11. Nope. No way I sleep tonight. A CEO wasn’t honest. If this bothers you, you need to get a real life. If there is an improvement, who cares how it is presented? Nobody here has had a C-Suite take credit for their achievement or idea?

  12. Wow. A very positive development for customer service/ experience, and all you all do is complain complain complain, bitch and moan. How pathetic.

    Most of the people I know who work for United are positively overjoyed with Kirby and the team running the show today. It’s WAY BETTER than the ungodly horrendous leadership after the CO/UA merger. This team, for better or worse (mostly better), is growing United, adding new destinations, and now adding a better, more customer-centric experience than they’ve had for DECADES, and they’ve articulated a vision with a very specific outcome. And all you all do is bitch and moan. Jesus.

  13. Let’s not forget United has announced they are sacrificing standards for skin color. Statistically 90% of airline pilots are white men, yet this corporation has stated they will hire “50% minorities and black” over next 10 years.. how is this legal, and even statistically possible?

    Sorry for the white guys.. looks like you’ll be discriminated against even more so with your top ATP ratings and interview scores.

  14. Might you ever acknowledge Doug Parker’s role in the HP/US and then US/AA model? He seems to skate on criticism here, at least as compared to Kirby.

    Regardless of context, United is actually implementing a positive product change. Remind me again what AA is actually doing in this regard?

    Everyone has made cuts, but it seems to me the better airline manager of the duo is the one who left American. Relative performance of AA and UA in the time period seems to bear this out.

  15. @GKK – I’m focusing on Kirby, not Parker, because Kirby’s the one making the claims here and because Kirby was driving the details at AA in any case.

    I do think that Kirby is the better operator and strategist than Parker or Isom who remain at AA.

  16. @Gary… I understand why you are critical of Kirby here (though somewhat gratuitously), based on the claims he makes, but the proof is in the pudding: he has been the CEO of United for over a year, in leadership at the company for approaching 5, and presumably gave the go-ahead on this decision. So, he at least has some credibility in this respect, and we don’t know whether he was the one pushing forward on the Oasis program at the end of his AA tenure.

    Kirby gets trashed in the blogosphere as a “manager-by-spreadsheet”, and it’s not an entirely unearned reputation, but my impression (hence my comment) is that of the former Parker-Kirby “Batman and Robin” team, Kirby is roundly viewed as more of a slash and burn type than Parker, while in practice, in more of a head to head comparison, Parker’s AA looks worse by comparison.

    I think most in the industry look more favorably on United’s leadership now, especially after its pandemic performance, than AA.

  17. Just need to see if the seats cushion will be worse than it is now… I love the A319 and A320s but the slimlimes make it horrible.

  18. United is awful to their employees and management is to blame. They have no management skills. No leadership.. Their Denver based operations have been running in “Emergency Mode” for months, employees are worked liked dogs and treated like cheap labor. Leadership and especially Kirby, are more worried about public image then running an efficient airline.

  19. No one mentioned Kirby’s other transgression of leaving JFK hub a few years ago, as a result, lost tons of connecting businesses. Now he is fighting to get back into JFK. What up dude ?

  20. Hey, I’m just glad United’s in-flight movies no longer begin with Jeff Smisek telling me about changes I’m going to like.

  21. Is that him on the screen? Regardless, that frozen smile and dead eyes is horrible. Creepy Creepy Creepy. Hell no.

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