United’s New CEO Continues to Say the Right Things, but Talk is Cheap


United’s new CEO Oscar Munoz continues to show that his public persona is nothing like that of his predecessor Jeff Smisek, making a point to be seen as outgoing and open to feedback. In fact, one of the first tangible signs of his reign has been the creation of a way to make it even easier to tell him what you think. This is good, but it’s also easy. It kind of reminds me of skiing. The first (and only) time I ever skied, I thought it was going to be simple after conquering the bunny slope. Then I hit my first green run and realized just how hard it was going to be. Oscar is cruising around the bunny slope with no trouble at all… but it’s still just the bunny slope.

So far, Oscar has lived up to his word. He said he’d be traveling the system and meeting with both employees and customers. By all accounts, he’s doing just that. Though his meetings may be met with a level of skepticism (at least, according to a letter he sent to employees on September 25), it doesn’t seem like it’s taken him long to understand some of United’s major issues.

Reading between the lines, if I may, Oscar seems to recognize that there’s still too much “us vs. them” (or in United-speak, sUA vs sCO), and it needs to stop. He also seemed to quickly pick up that there are too many consultants on the property (a problem that plagued United when I was there a decade ago as well). And he sees that employees are hamstrung from doing their jobs by the limited resources and tools they’re given. These are all blindingly obvious, but we haven’t seen United management recognize these issues publicly before. So this is good.

It sounds like Oscar is being deluged with messages from people by the thousands. He had to have known it would be this way, and it sounds like he’s making a solid effort to be as responsive as possible. I’m guessing he’s decided sleep is for the weak, at least for now.

Yet apparently Oscar didn’t think he was getting enough feedback so he created a brand new website to encourage even more. Head on over to United Airtime and give Oscar a piece of your mind, if you’d like.

The idea behind the site is a good one. It’s meant to be an interactive discussion. People can ask questions and leave feedback. United will then respond to some on the website for all the see. You can also see suggestions that other travelers have made (and these, at least, appear to be real). They’re fun to read, even without a response from the company.

But to me, this website shows some of the issues Oscar is going to face. His welcome video (above) is good. It strikes the same conciliatory tone we’ve seen from him since he started. For example:

The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees. And while it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise or our potential.

This is a completely different tone than we saw from Jeff Smisek. I still remember shaking my head when Jeff said that they had “clearly turned this carrier around” at GBTA last year. Oscar seems far more connected to what the public and the front line sees.

On the rest of the website, however, you see corporate-speak start to creep in. (“The new tools will help customers select the best flights and travel options to meet their needs.”) And while some questions do receive direct answers, others are full of vague promises. (“Recent improvements have significantly improved Wi-Fi speed and reliability, but we aren’t where we want to be and are actively working with our Wi-Fi providers to make further improvements.”)

I think people want open, honest, and complete answers. In a forum like this, brevity isn’t important. So let’s see if Oscar’s frank style can permeate the rest of the organization. It will take some time.

Of course, everything Oscar has said so far sounds good, and he’s starting to push his message further. He’s been doing sit-downs with major newspapers to push himself further into the public eye, including one called “United CEO talks coffee, bag fees and lousy flights” on Friday with the Chicago Tribune. (If that link is behind a paywall, Google the title and you should be able to get in that way.) The more he puts himself out there, however, the more he’s prone to screwing up. In that Tribune interview, for example, he waxes on about how great his flight attendant “Jenna” was on a recent flight. He said “If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.”

He might want to start with one Jenna. See, his flight was on a 50-seat regional jet, so Jenna works for a regional airline, not United. Is this a major mess up? Not really. But it shows the more he talks, the more people will pick apart what he says. Getting into the media spotlight is going to create a lot of opportunities to scrutinize him. Still, that’s nothing compared to the challenges that are to come.

The hardest part is making actual progress on fixing United’s problems. We haven’t heard anything about major changes to the executive team, nor have we seen any concrete plans to improve the product under Oscar’s rule. I wouldn’t expect these things to happen immediately, but I would expect changes to Oscar’s executive team to be some of the first orders of business. He needs to surround himself with people he trusts to do the job right. I would be shocked and concerned if he felt everyone who worked under Jeff’s rule was the right person to continue under his. I eagerly await those changes.

It’s far too early to evaluate Oscar’s reign. While what he says is most certainly encouraging, he’ll ultimately need to be judged on the results. Talk is cheap, and the bunny slope is easy. At least he seems to realize that to be the case.

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26 comments on “United’s New CEO Continues to Say the Right Things, but Talk is Cheap

  1. The first indication will come at the quarterly calls, will UA please shareholders with a dividend/buyback or invest in the tools the front-lines wants and needs.

    1. Prashanth – I’ve seen a lot of talk about the buyback, especially from the pilots. I think there’s plenty of room to do both. While I don’t generally think a buyback is a good use of money, it’s not preventing United from investing in the things it should be investing in.

  2. The fact that Jenna is providing service under the United name (all be it UA Express) means he wants all of the people that represent the brand to be good. How is that a bad thing?!? The fact that she is not a mainline employee shouldn’t matter to his line of thinking. They all represent the brand, contractor, employee, or regional employee.

    1. It’s not, but the real issue is that the major carrier likes to throw their hands up and say “not our problem” when something happens at the regional.

      Let’s see how he or his reports respond to a customer complaint about a UA Express flight. Will UA “own” the problem, or refer it out to their sub-carrier for resolution?

      The reality is that the major carrier has pretty much everything to do with the performance of their regional partners.

      1. If it’s a corporate or legal issue, then it’s the regional carrier’s job to deal with it. If it’s an issue of standards or service, then the mainline carrier can regulate the performance of the regional.

    2. Exactly, this is another example of the us vs. them mentality. It’s not just UA vs. CO, it’s also mainline vs. regional.

  3. I want to add a second point, everyone here that is expecting an immediate change is not thinking straight. You are actually thinking the same way that Wall-Street thinks. You want immediate results.
    As a new C-level executive that I spoke with at a large organization said to me. The first X-days (up to that person) you have to listen and not change too much. You then formulate your plan based on all the feedback and come out with a single comprehensive plan. That is what people want. They want a full plan, they don’t want things done then redone later when they align everything.
    You have to give him time. This ‘talk is cheap’ mantra that so many are saying is just setting yourselves up for failure, change does not happen overnight at the size of UA.
    Let’s not forget, that even if he wanted to roll out some big new reservation system it would take him months to get the program ready and approved by the Board.
    I can’t imagine something a ‘simple’ as changing the coffee served on board is easy to do in 2 weeks. So please, let the man work and give him the feedback he is asking.

  4. You are being a bit harsh Brett….Oscar’s reputation for execution at CSX is excellent. The quality and capabilities of the person is what matters here. All industries – not just airlines – are immensely challenging to run well; CSX was absolutely no cakewalk, and the challenges were many. Railroads just don’t have the same limelight and blogspace as airlined. I think he will overcome the doubts you sow here.

  5. As a Chicago-based flyer, I hope he can live up to his word and to the potential of the airline. I recently flew UA to Europe and largely agree with his ideas that the people have the potential to be great but are limited with poor tools and resources. My problems started the day before my flight – the two seats I specifically selected – and paid for – in United EconomyPlus magically disappeared. So instead of sitting in the coveted 2 across window section of a 777, my travel companion and I were thrown in middle seats two rows apart in the back of the section. 2 hours on the phone to finally get this resolved. Terminal 1 at ORD, frankly, is a dump. Terminal 3, home to AA, is cleaner, better dining options, and just feels nicer. I had 2 United Club passes through my Chase credit card and I’d be ashamed to put the name of my company on that “lounge”. Understaffed, disheveled, swill beverages and terrible coffee. This isn’t how you earn the premium traveler’s money. The flight attendants were great and lovingly called the red wine “crappy red wine”. That’s an accurate assessment. I heard the words “I’m sorry” so many times in describing the wine, the food, the condition of the plane. So many of these challenges don’t seem like they would be too tough to fix. In the meantime, AA will continue to get my travel dollars.

  6. “Us versus them” is definitely right. I’m a regular United flyer, and more than a few times the crew (cockpit and/or FAs) have made is well known (still) that they’re a Continental /legacy something or other crew. It’s happened often, and I’m not a once a week business flyer.

    My last flight in August the gentleman in front of me complimented the FA on their service, and after thanking him she went on for over two minutes about how THEY were Continental, standards, etc. -as he was smiling and courteously nodding- from my view completely disinterested.

    To turn a compliment into an insult against fellow employees is unprofessional, as is putting all the behind the seems drama in front of the customers, almost all of whom don’t care.

    1. There was a major difference between UA and CO customer service and passengers know that. Until UA service rises to the level of CO service it will be a topic of conversation inflight, divisive though it may be. Remember UA service was so bad they had to stop using their slogan, “Fly the Friendly Skies”. When they tried to reintroduce the slogan along with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue music played by a symphony orchestra in flight on UA metal , it was clear UA was not there yet and still is not today. I’m rooting for Oscar!

      1. I agree. I would be upset if my hard work and reputation over the years was diluted down by bad service. But the place to air those grievances is behind the scenes. You can put forth your own personal high level of service, but FAs aren’t free lancers and needs to act reasonably in a collective team.

        If I had a two teams come together and one was constantly bashing the other (for five years) in front of clients and customers I would be livid.

        Every time I hear it I find it embarrassing and unprofessional.

        Hopefully that will change soon.

  7. Wasn’t there some online news item yesterday titled “Oscar come home your company needs you” or something like that? Is he doing anything now except travel around and talk?

    You can have all the tools for people to complain to, but it doesn’t mean they are going to do anything about it.

  8. Whether Jenna’s paycheck comes from a regional carrier or United, she is the public face of United on that regional airplane with the United branding on the outside and the Hemisphere magazine in the seat pocket.

  9. I appreciate what is being attempted. Asking customers for input is a great idea, but with no “guarantee” of a response, it is somewhat empty. I do not expect a response to a rant about being late 15 minutes one day.
    However, a response to what the customer has observed over the course of several years, would be appropriate.

    Not responding to all reasonable questions or input is showing further contempt for the customer.

  10. Let me tell you something the fact that he doesnt KNOW that Jenna is NOT a UAL employee is poor in itself. Its a schoolboy error, He HAS to know something like that. Let me tell you another thing, he already HAS at least 5,000 Jennas at UAL. The problem is they have been so beat up and treated like trash they are no responding. Moost people want to be lead by a strong, more than competent leader. UAL has had nothing of the sort for YEARS!!! It shows. The fish rots from the head down. Management has NOT given the front line people the tools to do their job.

    As far as the contracts go, he says we can give you x if you give us y. No no no no no. When the UAL side people have been made whole, or close to it, from the draconian cuts shoved down their throats from bankruptcy, then he can ask for stuff. Unitl then fugetaboutit…….

    He talks the talk but can he walk the walk????? Not optimistic but then why should UAL employees be since they have been eating poop the last 12 years????

  11. At least Oscar admits there are issues. Jeff seemed to whitewash everything and say that United is the best.

  12. imo, in fairness he has a tall task in his hands and one he chose to accept. i think the platitudes show his lack of knowledge about the industry and UA.

  13. Two things I found odd about the video..

    It was shot before they knew the name of the site. He never says unitedairtime.com he just says “this site”

    The other thing is it was shot in front of the UAX Operations Manager’s workstation… Hrm.

  14. Ual’s crappy services and performance started long before the merger. Ua vs co is just smoke.
    Csx has no “retail” customers, ual is completely different.
    Sorry to say it, Oscar is doomed to fail.

  15. Of course he got great service from FA “Jenna.” She knew exactly who he was and made sure she was at the tippy-top of her game on that segment. Good luck to the average Joe or Jan who flies UA and subsidiaries.

  16. in the video mr. munoz looks like he was reading a corporate script. No specifics about what’s being done and what he sees in the future. pressure from within and pressure from without. a tall task that will not do with corporate speak. ua already heard that fluff from JS.

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