United Airlines has stood out for taking a path much less trodden during the COVID pandemic. While competitors raced to retire older widebodies, United held on to its fleet. As orders were iced and deliveries deferred, United placed the biggest in its history. Scott Kirby, CEO of United, is betting big on a robust return of both business and international – and he’s feeling confident that he’s got it right.
United’s bet on bounce-back
Unlike many of its competitors in the US, United Airlines has not undertaken a mass cull of its widebody aircraft. While airlines on both sides of the Atlantic have waved goodbye to large numbers of aircraft, from Boeing 747s and 767s to Airbus A380s and A340s, United has held on to the vast majority of its fleet.
Indeed, while other airlines were timidly reactivating grounded fleets, United placed one of the biggest orders in aviation history, booking in 270 Boeing and Airbus aircraft, valued at around $35 billion. Not only that, but the airline publicly committed to improving the customer experience, investing in its personnel, and becoming a more sustainable airline.
These were big, bold statements for an airline that was barely recovering from the worst year in aviation history. Nevertheless, United’s top brass still stands firm on its decision, believing in the bet it has made about traffic coming back. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, speaking to press on the sidelines of the IATA AGM in Boston, presented a bullish outlook, commenting,
“We feel better about the future than I think we’ve ever felt … we’re in this unique position where everyone else left us an opening on the playing field, I think, to run through be the biggest and best airline in the world.”
“I feel better than ever about the future.”✈️@United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby on his bullish prospects of the return of intl. & business travel, focusing the airline’s fortunes on customer service culture, an "aggressive" sustainability plan, and more. pic.twitter.com/rbqdFIJ4CC
— Quest Means Business (@questCNN) October 4, 2021
Doing it differently is very United, but has it gone the right way? Pressed to answer what it is that has made other airlines so cautious, Kirby said,
“They’re worried that business travel and international travel are never coming back. We have believed from the beginning that business demand and international are going to come back. So I think we’ve made the right bet.”
Kirby wants to hope that the bet they made is indeed correct. As he noted in the interview today, the fact that United has been the only one to make this bold prediction that these markets will bounce back means it has augmented what’s on the line if it turns out to be wrong.
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No avoiding the decision
Some might say that it’s better to make a decision and to risk being wrong than to not make a decision at all. Kirby appears to be from a similar mindset, stating that there was no avoiding taking a stance on the future of the market. He said,
“Well, you’ve got to make a bet – there’s no avoiding making a bet. We’re at the table … I think the much better bet is that business demand is going to come back.”
But Kirby’s strategy is not just relying on that business demand coming back. The airline has also staked its position in another key area – its passengers. Kirby noted,
“The other big bet we’ve made is that customers care about the quality of the product and customer service. For far too long, airlines have commoditized the travel experience, our bet is customers care about quality.”
United is rolling out huge programs of upgrades, retrofits and soft product changes to make its customers happier than ever. But is it working? Kirby believes so, stating that,
“We can see it in the data from our customers. Our NPS scores are up 30 plus points. They continue to get better, even now as we’re back to ramping up full service … Our frontline employees feel proud of where the airline is, they are excited about future and when they feel like that, they want to take care of you. When something goes wrong, they want to fix it because they want you to love the airline like they do.”
United has bet big on business travel rebounding. It has thrown its hat in the customer service ring. It is boldly staking its position as a bullish, customer-centric airline, that is not afraid to invest, even in the wake of the worst aviation crisis in history. Time will tell if this is a strategy that pays off.