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.