United Airlines President Scott Kirby spoke this morning at the JP Morgan Aviation, Transportation, & Industrials Conference and what’s notable is that instead of just talking about the airline’s route network — talking about earning their ‘natural share’ of revenue just by flying — he talked about earning customers’ business by delivering better service.
United’s ‘core4’ metrics put safety as their top priority but then caring is above operation and efficiency. It was surprising to hear Kirby tell analysts that they ‘can’t see it in spreadsheets’ but this drives customers to choose to fly United when they have a choice. Hearing Kirby talk about things beyond the spredsheet is… uncharacteristic.
But he spent much of his presentation talking about the ariline’s strengths being cultural and delivering service. That historically hasn’t been a United Airlines strength, and they’re at a disadvantage in my view relative to Delta which is far less unionized, and that’s without even walkig back through recent events like the David Dao beating, shoving an elderly man to the ground and threatening to steal his miles if he complained, and killing dogs.
Kirby laid out several initiatives, entirely apart from investments in premium physical product like lounges and the addition of premium seats.
- One of my favorite advances at United is their “Every Flight’s a Story” project to push our real information to customers about delays rather than just declaring that something was ‘operational’ or ‘weather’. Using detailed English they explain the weather event including where it is (so a customer understands what’s happening when the airline declares a weather delay but looks outside and sees blue skies).
- Kirby shared that United is trialing a project called “Dynamic D0” in Denver that will allow the airline to delay some flights to allow late-arriving customers not to misconnect.It’s certainly true that a gate agent who might delay a flight may lack important information about the consequences: whether there are passengers on that flight with tight connections at their next destination, what crew are scheduled to be doing down line, what sort of weather patters a flight may need to travel around – so airlines don’t like agents making the decision.
A year ago I wrote about American Airlines CEO Doug Parker schooling a pilot on why those in command of the aircraft shouldn’t make the choice to delay a flight. That needs to be left up to operations people with all of the relevant facts in front of them. That doesn’t mean those people will take the time to do it, though.
United is testing automation to determine when to proactively delay a departure, for instance because ‘5 or 6 customers are going to be 5 minutes late to the gate and we can make up that time’ in the air.
Kirby also threw shade at previous management for abandoning New York JFK, saying they had a mandate to limit capacity and their transcon flights weren’t strong performers (he suggested though they were break-even not money losing) but giving up on those flights meant losing corporate contracts from businesses who would fly United Los Angeles – London. (That’s the essence by the way of my argument about why American Airlines appears to be spiraling to irrelevance at New York JFK.)
Before you think this is an entirely new Scott Kirby it’s worth remembering that United just removed a flight attendant from business class just a month ago. They aren’t investing in service across the board. But the emphasis is notable.