Want a Good Laugh? CEO Oscar Munoz Says United Will Become the Best Airline in the World

When they’re not dragging passengers down the aisle of an aircraft, knocking them to the ground by the ticket counter, cancelling their flights for spite or kicking them in the airport chapel, United is hard at work becoming the best airline in the entire world according to CEO Oscar Munoz.

Sounding confident and positive about United’s future, even making jokes and giving some personal insights into his journey since becoming the airline’s CEO in 2015, Munoz said the big takeaways were that “our mission is very clear—to be the best employer, have the best customer service and to become the best airline in the world.”

Munoz became CEO of United after his predecessor was implicated in the Bridgegate scandal, authorizing a bribe to a public official in exchange for official action at Newark airport.

He’s since hired Scott Kirby as United’s President and Andrew Nocella as Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer in charge of revenue management, marketing, MileagePlus, among other things. Both came from American Airlines, where of course they spent the past several years making American a better, more customer-friendly airline since being taken over by US Airways (not).

He says the “$1 billion investment” in higher pay for employees is “well worth the price” because unhappy employees drag down an airline with its customers and operational performance. However pay is a necessary component but hardly sufficient motivator of job performance.

Munoz acknowledges a need for “a deeper sense of customer service” but suggests that this is primarily that “people want frequency, reliability and cost” though I’d add not being beaten up, dragged, or kicked matters too.

Munoz’s excuse for bad customer service is safety,

Munoz conceded that United—and the industry in general—needed to get a deeper sense of customer service. “That means a lot of things to a lot of people. Primarily, people want frequency, reliability and cost,” he said. It also requires more flexibility; Munoz acknowledged the discipline and rigor necessary for safety has made the industry inflexible in its customer service practices.

Two years ago former Starwood CEO — and former United and Pan Am executive — Adam Aron offered a similar analysis.

Aron suggested that airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience. And he relayed a story of being made to watch a video about the Tenerife airport disaster when he first started at Pan Am and being told, “Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.”

However there are gradations of customer experience across airlines, it isn’t all or nothing.

Some airlines do well in customer service while running world class operations. I think that Singapore Airlines qualifies here, with a product that runs from their top end suites class, to outstanding business class, and a thoughtful economy class… to the best inflight main entree meal service in the sky, and a service culture that lets them pull off an ad campaign like this.

Today we have an industry that acts like a regulated cartel, and unsurprisingly offers service more in tune with the DMV than an expensive service retailer. Not only does government own and operate airports and airspace, but they protect the major airlines from outside competition. We need competition in the airline industry to be made legal.

United added Illy coffee and stroopwafels and began the 30 year drive to introduce Polaris business class that will merely make their product ‘good enough’ (and which no matter what United claims are seats not merely pillows and desserts).

Long before there was Polaris the C in business class was for Connoisseur class. There was the Summer From Hell in 2000. There were numerous IT meltdowns. And there’s been a decades long struggle for United to perform to its potential let alone to become the best airline in the world — which it has no reason to even really strive for because it’s protected from the kind of competition which would spur it to much improve.

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. UA, thanks to Kirby & Nocella, will become AAII, since that’s all that Kirby & Nocella know.

  2. For the leader of a company to say he’s going to make that company the best in the world, that’s the spirit you want. If it’s possible is another question, but you would be posting if he said he just wanted to make it serviceable, or #2 as well. Anything he said would have ended up in a VFW post.

  3. This is not funny!! Assuming he actually believe what said, the guy is obviously delusional, he may do something crazy like shooting someone anytime. He need to be institutionalise right away

  4. OMFG! What is this guy on? Is he for real? Has he ever flown *A partners SQ or One World CX, QR?

    UA haven’t got a hope in hell, unless they clean out the old, really old me me me me overweight women flight attendants and the me me me male princess flight attendants and get some young, enthusiastic crews. A few glamours and some ridgy-didge blokes. Really, Oscar, give yourself an uppercut LOL you make me laugh dude

  5. Hey Robby. Some of the best in flight service I’ve ever had came from the most senior flight attendants. Sounds like you are more interested in the “view” then real service.

  6. Obviously, for anyone who has flown them and in comparison with other international airlines, United has a long steep road ahead. My experience in recent encounters, shows them to be taking baby steps forward in acknowledging customers on one hand, and major steps backwards with the introduction of basic economy on all fare levels. Customer respect begins with honesty.

  7. What do you expect him to say? Setting a goal of being the best seems like the correct leadership move. Should his goal be something like sixth best? You travel snobs seems to have lost some connection with the real world.

  8. With Kirby running the show UA will have short term gains for long term pain and end up loosing their elites. 1st step is to get rid of Kirby. Munoz I believe could help United become the Best Airline in the World. The customer service issues are an easy fix. But captain spreadsheet (Kirby) products and practices are going to destroy UA as an airline for elites.

  9. Credentials: United 1k elite for 5 years.

    United’s CEO must dry clean the old United of their conception of customer service and then outplan, outthink, out train and out inspect. Without the promise of the best airlines is phantom. Lets provide an example, and remember that I am 1k.

    1) booked intl business class ,POLARIS SERVICE, from Japan to USA.(Polaris,as United states, is the reimagined business class experience from AHHH to ZZZZZ. . Launced with fanfare and confidence that after 12,000 hours of market research that the Polaris service will close the gap with the superior international carriers. ).
    2)My business class seat did not recline ,so there was no zzz experience.
    3) The flight attendant attemped to manually force the seat without success.
    4) I was moved to another inoperable seat when finally the flight manager intervened bellowing that, the seat was blacklisted so, it was necessary to gather all my belongings again . The flight manager stated there was nothing they could do and provided a incident slip,that was designed to address,for example, food spilled on clothes. Certainly the crew was not trained nor did they seem to care about the POLARIS CLASS disruption.
    5) I contacted 1k customer care, who stated that they would only provide a $500. electronic voucher or 25,000 mile credit to my account ,and that they did not feel it was their responsibility to remedy the past errant flight. That the offer was only”goodwill,” and that they had a matrix they followed.
    6) I contacted corporate customer care who supported the 1k customer care.
    7) I requested, of course, that United provide a confirmed business class replacement which seemed reasonable since they failed miserably despite grand advertisement of the great Polaris BUsiness Service. United asked if I had moved into economy, and since I did not they stated that the business class seat was used and refused.
    8) the only outstanding performance by United was to insult a very good customer and turn me into an adversary. As my friends stated in Singapore when I informed them,….” On,,,how did you fly United.”
    9) the above occured during the times of the horrible stories of United including the dragging incident. I contacted the VP of United in Charge of Customer Experience who did not even bother to respond to numerous emails.
    10) If United truly had spent 12,000 hours studying how to reimagine their service, one might stipulate that they would then launch an intense encompassing training program for their flight attendants so that the Polaris Class truly provided a superior customer experience, Sadly, for United, the Polaris training was meagar ( per United Flight attendants ) very brief, and did not marinate those who are tasked to provide with high standards that must be followed to qualify to work the Polaris flights.

    Thus, United has a long long way to go to prove that they are serious about customer care.

  10. One of the things I do not get at all:
    Who in the world did United consult re Polaris advertising …?
    Even a complete and total idiot could have predicted that without the seats being implemented speedily, the whole campaign would be ridiculous …
    Then, they royally screw up on their promised wine tasting thing several times …
    Then the recent incidents with passengers …
    Wow! .. I do like Munoz, but ‘the best airline’ … too tall an order at this point.

  11. Sometimes, when are having a good laugh at other’s expense, we sometimes forget the past. Consider, before Continental acquired UA, Continental had a great reputation. The merger was from hell. United was not a good airline at the merger. And the fact that they didn’t do it well, was the CEO problem. Screwed up at the top, employees will follow the example.

    Oh, and for those that wax poetic about Delta seem to forget a long stretch of just how bad they were. And, at one time, it was Continental that trained Delta on customer service, after they were taught service from SAS.

  12. If United wants good customer service in NYC, they should have better infrastructure going to Newark. The mono-rail is like a toy with max of 6 to 8 passengers in each car with big luggages. I would take United more often if I do not have to schlep the horrible NY transit to EWR. Get real with our infrastructures.

  13. Naming Singapore Airlines as the ideal airline model isn’t so smart…now that it’s obvious that Singapore–despite its industry leading service and amazing premier class experience–is LOSING money.

    United may not be the best airline in the world…but it is far from the middle of the pack airlines as so many bloggers and customers like to pretend or claim. Having flown most of the top airlines in premium (usually F) classes, including Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Asiana, ANA, JAL, KAL, Qantas, American, British Air, Air France (J), South African (J), Virgin Atlantic (J), Delta (J), Aeroflot (J), I can say that United premium service is more often than not more comparable to those than most want to admit. United also has entirely flat seats in all of its long haul premium classes, something not even Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, American, etc can claim.

    United’s new Polaris food selections also are better than American and Delta. And United has by far the best route map of any of the world’s carriers.

    United’s in flight entertainment system is among the world’s best.

    United isn’t the best overall. But United is much improved and looking like a much more competitive airline than anyone cares to admit.

    And United, despite its terrible customer service incidents recently, still is making billions in profits…something few airlines anywhere in the world can claim.

  14. @Michael Karpiel Never been averse to a view mate, but always just interested in my safety. Isn’t that what they are there for? LOL.

    Some of them are so overweight and old they could not save themselves, let alone their passengers.

    And as for the frilly boys prancing up and down the aisles on UA, they are more worried about their appearance than saving a passengers.

    Too much attitude from the fancy boys on that airline. I’m sick of it. I don’t want their rudeness and attitude.

    And as long as they are allowed to prance up and down the aisles as glorified waiters and waitresses UA to be Best Airline in the World is just positively laughable.

    Get a broom. Clean them all out. Get some 21st century professionals. Times have changed. Safety is paramount, so is the fitness and healthiness of the waiters and waitresses.

    And get real people to work the aisles, those in touch with the real world, not those from New York, Chicago or California. They all live in fantasy land.

  15. If Kirby is around, the only thing that UA can strive to become is the best ULCC. Him and his “revenue” management has already made UA the worst legacy carrier with Basic Economy but not-basic fares.

    @Robbo you are a sick, disgusting bigot. UA doesn’t need buffoons like you and I’m sure none of the airlines are happy about carrying such a disgusting excuse of a human being as a passenger. You are the one out of touch with the real world, living in your fantasy land rural backwoods middle of nowhere. 21st century professionals? What a joke, they already have 21st century professionals but you are the one behind the times, mate. I hope you and your bigoted kind die off soon so that new generation can lead the show.

  16. “CEO Oscar Munoz says United will become the best airline in the world.” Yes, when United Airlines offers interplanetary travel to a new planet like Uranus.

  17. Written like an entitled Flyertalk brat. “I want my unlimited free upgrades AND I want a head and neck massage from the gate agent!”

  18. I don’t get the idea that safety concerns excuse the outrageous incidents of horrible customer service or any customer service issues. Airlines have always had safety as their primary concern. For example, kicking passengers off a boarded aircraft to accommodate deadheading crew has nothing to do with safety.

  19. One of United’s other problems, is that with the horrible seats and “Basic Economy” pricing, it makes people like myself actually consider some of these low-cost airlines for the first time. They are still considerably cheaper, and if the in-flight experience is the same – Why pay extra for United?

    With that said: I fly Allegiant Airlines for the first time ever, out of EWR tomorrow. It’s a quick trip, so I didn’t need to check a bag(which I get free with United), and I’m going with just a small backpack. Paid a bit extra to select my seat. (extra legroom Exit row, Aisle) and the flight was still 40$ cheaper in each direction. Figured I’d give it a test run…..

  20. Just like delta’s ceo, united’s is also trying to pull off a trump whopper, also hoping their passengers are as stupid and ignorant as the trump deplorables.

    The sad part is that he might very well succeed, since close to 40% of the population lacks the intellect to understand any better (they won’t get it why they lost their Medicaid and health insurance but will be told it was President Obama’s fault and be encouraged to go out to buy a new gun and feel good again, until they die at the old age of 35), and statistically, a portion of them also flies.

    Really sad…

  21. “CEO Oscar Munoz says United will become the best airline in the world.”

    Clarification: United will try to become the world’s best ULCC. But they will face competition – USdbaAA is also aiming for world’s best ULCC.

  22. United is quickly passing Singapore, Cathay & Emirates to become the world’s favorite and best quality airline. Best seats, best wines, best food, best frequent traveler program and best inflight experience.

  23. @Mark: Thanks for the kind words about UA from the UA Publicity department. To write such garbage, you have to be being paid for it by UA. Or alternatively, you have led a sheltered life. How can you even say that with a straight face. Flown QR lately? You also need to give yourself an upper-cut mate.

  24. I remember when I started flying and the joke of the industry was Continental. A mix up of airlines that was a disaster. I would fly and hopefully arrive in a destination — eventually and a plane that hopefully worked. I then remember one day when a new chairman came on board and promised his airline would go from worse to first…. He lived up to the promise. Look at all the comments about the greatness of Continental without their history of bad Eastern planes, bad People Express experience etc.

    Good luck Oscar — I hope you and all the wonderful associates of United can match Gordon’s achievements… I am 1k for life – so you know I am routing for your team!

  25. From the ashes, a phoenix will rise.

    A great Vision is …well, good business….

    Reach for the Stars…..


    If you instill a goal to your employees – something must come out of it – eventually.

  26. United Airlines didn’t crash that passenger of their plane – Chicago P.D. did. Why does every media outlet and blogger insist it was United employees? All you have to do is watch the video – “POLICE” can clearly be read on the uniform.

    Now every sue happy, litigious, entitled idiot thinks they can get millions for being treated just like they are from every other airline.

    Poor judgement was used by this website in its reporting of this incident.

  27. @Andrew…. Who invited those officers onboard using a phony pretext? The officers biggest mistake was believing anything that United’s gate agents told them. Both parties were to blame but the officers would not have been there in the first place without United asking them to remove the passenger. It’s hardly bad reporting by Gary. It’s fake news posted by you.

  28. @Mark-
    Fake news? Where did I make up anything? I did not excuse United for their role; however, that was a clear case of 1. Non compliance to Officers direction & 2. Police brutality. Neither of which is part of United employees responsibility.
    The Fake News as you describe it is saying that United was responsible for the actions of the POLICE- regardless of why or how they were there, they didn’t lady a hand in them. Gary and you blame them with no regard for the facts.
    Have you have an incident with United that you would like to share?

  29. @Andrew… If you were a guest in my house and I called the police and told them a lie that you had committed a crime to get them to come and forcefully remove you I would be just as liable as the police. As a matter of fact the police wouldn’t even be there if I hadn’t called them in the first place. You make it seem like United and it’s employees were innocent which couldn’t be further from the truth. I assure you the police were not off the hook in this incident nor should they be. That still doesn’t excuse United’s behavior.

  30. While I agree that the policies of UA are hardly customer friendly. A key problem is purely numbers- the number of FA’s per passenger on UA longhaul flights are not the same as on their foreign “rivals.”

  31. This story and the comments are pretty funny. No matter what was said there would be a different take.

    You could also go through and look at all the AA and DL meltdowns and “enhancements” over the last year.

    When you inherit a flaming pile of shit, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Will UA ever be on the level of JL, QR, or LH? Probably not, but hey at least they’re profitable. There will never be behavior changes in the US legacy carriers until foreign competitors are allowed to enter the market.

  32. @Mark-
    Actually, in YOUR house, no matter what the reason, here in Pennsylvania, I would be required to leave by law. If I didn’t, you don’t even need the police to do what happened on the United flight – it’s called the Castle Doctrine and is in dozens of States.
    Additionally, non compliance with a Law Enforcement Officer in this situation COULD LEGALLY end up the same.
    I COMPLETELY AGREE Dr. Dao should NOT have been asked to be removed, nor was that much excessive force needed to remove an out of shape man like him; however, IF he would’ve just followed the law, we wouldn’t be discussing every SILLY reported incident against this company. Some of it is FAKE NEWS, and has been proven as such.
    My point was for Gary and Co. to stop feeding the flames of this “pile of poo” as one poster describes it.

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