United opened its newest Polaris lounge at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) last week, so I headed on up the road to go check it out. While I was there, I was given some time to talk with CEO Oscar Munoz. We discussed a variety of things including future plans for an LAX Terminal 9 (just talking about it, nothing else to report). Toward then end of our time, I decided to ask him exactly how he plans on spending his time in 2019. He answered with three areas of focus… plus an overarching consideration of technology.
Before I get into the answer, I should note that there was background to this question. Since Oscar started, United has been in some state of crisis or change. But now, for the first time in ages, things are looking more stable for the airline. The network strategy is working, the operation is running well, and financial performance has been solid. For once, United isn’t in a crisis. That means Oscar should have more flexibility on how he chooses to spend his time, and that is why I asked the question. Here’s what he said.
Keeping People Engaged
Echoing what I’ve heard from other CEOs, Oscar first mentioned employees. A fair amount of work has already been done to improve the culture at United, and people tell me they can really feel a shift. But the room for rapid, massive improvement starts to run out as United catches up to where it should have been this whole time. That means Oscar’s employee strategy has to move into the next phase: keeping everyone engaged.
How does that happen? Well part of it is about making employees feel connected. The airline has already announced that it’s bringing in all of its flight attendants to Chicago for a unique kind of training. Assuming this goes well, it will undoubtedly expand to other workgroups. Oscar already has a rapport with the front line, so he is going to be focusing on keeping that up and improving relationships wherever possible.
The Growth Plan
Oscar said his second focus is on continuing the growth plan, but I pushed back on that. Isn’t that really the domain of President Scott Kirby and CCO Andrew Nocella? He conceded that it was, but he’s still actively involved in meetings and discussions around it. He says that he plays an important role asking and answering big questions around the implementation of the plan. This is a focus, but I didn’t get the sense it was a primary focus.
Improving the Customer Experience – Starting with Wifi
The last point of focus feels a lot more important. That is to answer this simple question:
How do we make our customers feel good about flying United?
This is a recurring theme that’s going to be a big focus for the airline in general this year. And there’s apparently a lot in progress. So what is the biggest customer pain point? Oscar did not hesitate.
He said that having good, reliable wifi across the fleet is hugely important, and that they would do a lot to be able to make sure that gets implemented. Oscar told me that there will be more announcements this year as the airline races to improve that experience.
Technology Over All
Over all of this, Oscar says that he will spend a lot of time on answering this strategic question:
How do we make digital a competitive advantage?
We’ve heard a lot about how Delta is ahead in terms of tech development… and how American is behind. But Oscar says that United has very quietly been developing all sorts of technology to make work easier. At the same time, they will either create a revenue opportunity or lower costs. He bundles all this under “relevant innovation and technology.”
What does that mean? Well, he said much of the improved operation was thanks to big technological improvements. There are also little things like allowing people to buy upgrades a few days in advance of travel that make life easier and increase revenue.
There is a lot more that has been developed along with more in development, but Oscar wouldn’t talk about them yet. It’s a competitive advantage, he says, and he didn’t want to tip his hat.
And that is how Oscar will be spending his 2019.