United’s CEO Gives Up His First Class Seat to an Elderly Nervous Flyer

When Oscar Munoz came on as United Airlines CEO as a rushed replacement for disgraced former company head Jeff Smisek he made it a priority to spend time and listen to employees.

Despite being sidelined early on with health problems Munoz traveled around the system and did a lot for the airline’s morale. He announced several new customer-friendly changes early on, many of which had been worked on during the Smisek era, including plans for Polaris business class seats, lounges, and soft product improvements like arguably the world’s best business class bedding.

It even seemed like he was turning around the airline, at least until bringing on American Airlines President Scott Kirby as United’s President. To be sure he had significant missteps like defending the dragging and beating of David Dao (an incident which cost him the Chairmanship of the airline.) However, aside from stealing sand from public beaches, he seems like a genuinely good guy. At least that’s been my impression the times that I’ve met him.

Munoz used to claim that he “always seems to get” seat 22A — something I was skeptical of, especially since he claimed to be getting that seat on 50 seat regional jets which don’t have that many rows.

Recently he was seated in first class though and he reportedly gave up his seat to an elderly woman in back who was nervous, not having flown in a long time.

[T]onight I was on a flight w the CEO of United. I was a bit surprised seeing him walk back into the economy section of the plane to take his seat. Seated in front of me on the plane was an elderly lady in her 80’s (maybe even early 90’s). She didn’t appear to be in great health and had a bit of a hard time with her speech. Prior to boarding, I’d seen Oscar (the CEO) make his way out of a crowd of people in order to go over and speak w her. I thought it was nice of him to take time to say hello to her when there was literally a crowd of people trying to speak w him. After we landed, I overheard the elderly lady tell the man she was sitting next to how it’d been a very long time since she’d flown, that she had been very nervous, and how she couldn’t believe the kindness of Oscar, giving up his seat in first class just for her.

The passenger sharing the story, who describes herself as a loyal Delta customer and who was seated behind the woman in what was supposed to be Oscar Munoz’s seat, says this may have converted her into a lifelong United customer. And that, by the way, is how you win business — authentically, one customer at a time.

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. @ Gary — I want to think this was a genuine gesture, but given that this guy stole a massive amount of sand from a public beach, I question his integrity.

    Do you know what flight? I would be curious to know if the flight was 45 minutes or 4 hours.

  2. I’m sorry but one act of kindness blown up like he saved a life
    doesn’t erase the horrors of United for the past 17 or 18 years
    To me it’s a publicity stunt planned or unplanned
    First there is the retirement package they stripped from United employees who dedicated their lives to the airline
    Let us not forget the climax of dragging a passenger down the aisle for their own selfish internal greed
    Or forget about the Munoz original statement that they did the right thing before the media fallout and later apologizing for the blood on their hands
    And what about gutting their award chart and ripping off the American public with
    a bad experience each and every day while disconnecting customer relations phone lines to resolve issues
    Ever try to get a refund @ United while your still alive?
    United suddenly a humanitarian airline? Oh yes of course
    More of a disgrace compared to the greatness of this airline in the 90s
    Decades of passenger abuse with or without blood makes United amongst the bottom of my list when choosing transportation
    And off topic removing international First Class completely to add a mediocre business class smacks of the dated Continental Airlines approach sub par premium cabins with cost cutting cheap amenities ay sky high pricing
    It lowers the prestige and perception of the airline worldwide
    My perception of United?
    Probably better than Frontier or Spirit but a barely desirable choice for premium or coach cabins
    I’m not sure who is worse the Sand thief or the deranged Parker monster that ruined my once favorite airline American
    There’s an old saying your actions speak louder than any of your words
    Thank god for Jet Blue Alaska and the once unthinkable Southwest or Delta
    Signed a long ago ex 100 k @Untied Airlines

  3. Gene, give it a rest. He didn’t go out the beach with a bobcat and move the sand nor did he even hire the contractor that did it. His freakin neighbor did and that’s why 4-5 houses got in trouble for it, he just happened to have the most prominent name. I’m not saying it was ok but I think it was probably a bit of a misunderstanding. They didn’t steal sand, they just moved it and it will eventually move back as nature takes its course. It was headline porn for the media, that’s all.

  4. Gary, United planes skip seat numbers near the emergency exit. I think on 737s it goes from 14 to 21 from the first exit row to the second.

    All that being said, they need to fire, fire, fire, Scott Kirby. It was such a huge disappointment when they brought him on. Kirby has made worse cuts than Smisek. I really wish that guy would just go on to head spirit or frontier, because he doesn’t belong in a real airline.

  5. @ Bob — Just moved it? Is that like someone “just moving” cash from your bank account to theirs?

  6. @ Dwondermeant — Well said. You left out the part about Delta ripping off its customers through massive unannounced serial devaluations. The Big 3 are all the same. They have each found their own special way of sticking it to their passengers. Next, they can copy each other more and stick it to their customers using their competitor’s methods.

  7. i don’t believe this story. United has zero credibility Maybe it happened I don’t know but I’ve been lied to so many times by United that I don’t believe anything from them.

  8. Its amazing how ailrines is like sports teams. People refuse to believe ANYthing good can happen from the ‘other guys’. Oscar definitely DOES seem like a good guy. Hes not supreme ruler of the airline, and just because he got up for an older woman to sit down doesn’t mean anyone is saying UA is perfect, just that he did a good thing.

  9. @ Dwondermeant — Well said. You left out the part about Delta ripping off its customers through massive unannounced serial devaluations. The Big 3 are all the same. They have each found their own special way of sticking it to their passengers. Next, they can copy each other more and stick it to their customers using their competitor’s methods.

    As said by @Gene above, I agree 100%!!!

    And while I certainly do understand the jaded cynicism expressed by many (after all, the airlines have more than made clear the contempt they have for most of their fare paying pax in recent years…), and shockingly to some who are familiar with my many critiques of the industry (expressed here and elsewhere) though this may be, I’m not seeing this as a planned, or pre- scripted PR stunt.

    In this case, and until seeing proof otherwise, I’m inclined to believe that Oscar Munoz did give up his seat for this elderly flyer – and for that he deserves all due props for being a Mensch! (nb: Yiddish for when someone does a good deed)

    Now, if only Mr. CEO Munoz would spend more time sitting in his airline’s MAIN CABIN (not E+) seats then he’d really be a rock star CEO & full time Mensch instead just this one-off time 😉

  10. You people are too intelligent.
    I told Oski this wouldn’t work and that the VFTW readers would sniff it out immediately.
    BTW, Dug would never think if doing this..

  11. I use to fly the ORD PEK on AA,

    Today if you want to fly award travel, best value is on United.., it is the same on many routes..

    I am Lifetime AA Gold.

  12. @ Howard & Gene
    Delta is despicable and evil but I still find seats in Delta One to Europe so while I use the program the chances of actually buying a ticket on them is next to none
    Try to avoid them at all costs and when I talk about redeeming my miles or doing business with them on any level it involves giving the seats away to family and close friends
    I have personally not set foot on a Delta flight in over 20 years
    I would have to take hours to rip into them and quite frankly I want to have positive energy in here in the holiday season
    Legacy carriers are depressing however once in a blue moon you suck it up and do an hour or two on American or United as they are the last carrier standing in their government approved monopolized market and they get you to your final destination
    Its extraordinary how much I spend and how many legs I will endure to avoid legacy carriers just to stay loyal to the handful of decent respectable carriers left in this country

  13. Perhaps. It’s time to break apart the big three legacy airlines. Like ATT. Only three major carriers left. That’s shameful. They are just too big. Period. I used to have a favorite couple of legacy airlines, Continental and Northwest. But now they’re gone. Or….maybe…and this would upset the tender sensibilities of the Legacy 3. Legalize cabotage. Let Singapore, Emirates, and other foreign carriers fly domestically within the USA. They offer superior service on their routes. Then see how the big three get their acts together. THEY HAVE TAKEN THE AMERICAN FLYING PUBLIC FOR GRANTED FOR TOO LONG!!! Let’s just give it a try…an experiment. Deregulation has been such a success. NOT!!!

  14. Not that business perspective if this blog’s strong suit, but I feel compelled to comment on your statement that Munoz “seemed like he was turning around the airline, at least until bringing on American Airlines President Scott Kirby as United’s President.”

    In reality, the hiring of Kirby seems like — by far — the smartest thing Munoz has done. The aircraft utilization plan developed and implemented by Kirby has caused United’s profitability to soar and — unsurprisingly — United’s stock price keeps hitting all time highs. I know that you may not like the fact that Kirby tries not to give perks to customers who don’t pay for them, but try to have some perspective grounded in reality.

  15. @chipsticks – actually the business analysis on this blog is some of the best you’ll get which is why analysts covering the industry read it and investment firms pay to consult with me.

    In this case you’re simply misinterpreting what I said. I wasn’t talking about margins (though of course those have eroded). I was talking about the quality of the airline. Complaining that I’m talking about the airline experience – which is what Munoz was turning around, along with the company culture, and NOT stock price completely misses the point.

    You may have forgotten that I was one of the few voices explaining why Kirby’s expansion plans made sense for the airline.

  16. @ Gary — You wrote “[i]t even seemed like he was turning around the airline, at least until bringing on American Airlines President Scott Kirby as United’s President.” If you want to know walk that back, go ahead, but let’s get real. Scott Kirby is the best thing that ever happened to United Airlines in decades. Not necessarily for passengers, who won’t be getting things they don’t pay for, but certainly for the owners and the employees who need profits to keep their jobs and get pay raises.

    As far as investment firms PAYING YOU for your advice, I just have to laugh. There is, obviously,. a lot of bad investment advice out there in the world. After all, the average professional investor under performs the market. It’s not necessarily their fault, of course. Investing is very hard, and often illogical and irrational. Personally, I don’t recommend individual investing for this reason (buy an S&P fund, and spend your time on something else). That said, your track record of what makes airlines profitable — and good investments — is quite poor. I’m certain this is because you overvalue what you enjoy as a customer, and undervalue what is actually profitable for an airline. I made similar comments about this last month is a post you wrote entitled “American Airlines Stock Hits Two Year: What’s Going On?” Basically, when people like you say the end is near, THAT is the time to buy a well-managed airline (yes, well managed) like American. And now their stock has bounced back by more than 30% in weeks. If you had written about THAT investment opportunity, perhaps those clients of yours would be more impressed.

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