The Air Show Interviews Scott Kirby

This week, The Air Show podcast aired an interview with Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines. Jon Ostrower from the Air Current has a follow up article on the interview that’s worth reading as well. While appearances like this are not remarkable, it was Kirby’s attitude and his approach to management that made an impression on me.

About Scott Kirby

Corporate portrait of Scott Kirby
United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby

One of the things I didn’t know was that he has 7 children. This sounds like a job in and by itself. He also pointed out that he reads for 3 hours per day. Why on earth does he not have a Kirby’s Notes? These two ice-breaking facts caught my interest and set the stage for a fascinating chat.

About United

For those outside the US and not familiar with the topic, United has been known for not being the most passenger-friendly airline and lately, their hiring practices have been put into question, fairly or not.

Lately, United has seen a surge in aircraft maintenance issues that have caught the attention of the safety agencies…. and the safety agencies’ oversight bureau. Even though all these issues appear to be unrelated and don’t show negligence on the airlines’ maintenance practices, it’s still not a good look.

United Today

Picture of a United 787-MAX 8
United 787-MAX 8

While it’s not easy to ignore all these things, this week I was listening to an interview with United’s CEO about the airline, how he’s turning things around, and where it sees itself in the industry.

Kirby goes on to talk about his approach at United. An approach based on innovation and doing things that make the customer want to stick with them: a faster and proactive rebooking system, flights staying at the gate 5 to 10 minutes to wait for connecting flights, or even making a point of keeping the wet towels before departure to foster eye-to-eye contact between the flight attendants and the passengers.

And this hits home. Last year was a terrible year with American for me. This year I have decided to try out Delta and the experience has been fine: Delta One was honestly underwhelming as a product (granted I tried it on an A330 and not on their latest A350 or retrofitted jets), but I still have a fly Delta more to really be able to judge. So far no long delays, although I have a 38-minute layover in Minneapolis coming up and I wonder why I haven’t been rebooked yet.

Depending on how it all goes, I am willing to try out United given what I have heard from the top. Is it true that United is taking a step back and putting customers first?

Boeing Tomorrow

Kirby also talked about Boeing’s struggles, pointing out the fact that Boeing needs a culture change, one that puts its employees at the forefront and that revenue would follow. The way it was before its merger with McDonnell Douglas, where engineers ran the company with innovation with fewer concerns about shareholder value.

I found this fascinating: put your employees (and customers for that matter) first and revenue will follow. I understand what he means, but is it too naive of a position to take? How many “cool startups” that take care of its employees fail each year because of poor leadership? I’m not saying Kirby is wrong, I want him to be right. I want the formula to be right, however, one needs to wonder if the problem is a lot more complex and “happy employees and happy customers” are not enough for the company to be the American source of pride that Boeing used to be.

I believe Boeing’s problems can be solved with a culture change. Over and over again I see technology (or innovation-based) companies being run by MBAs with no engineering background making decisions based on spreadsheets. But Boeing still has time to change its ways. Or at least that’s what the airlines think based on their order books.

Picture of a United Boeing 787 in flight
United Boeing 787

Business and air travel

It’s easy for top executives to say “we need to put safety first”, or “shareholder value needs to build value long term”. But one can’t help but wonder if these are simplistic views that make CEOs look good. I am not a CEO, so I don’t know. But if what they say is true, why do I just get a $50 refund from a major airline that took me to the wrong airport with a 12 hour delay? There is a lot to be learned about customer care.