After 19 Months, United Airlines Just Made a Very Big Announcement

During the darkest days of the early part of the pandemic, when infection rates were rising and vaccines were in the future,  I was a struck by a quote from United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby.

Kirby was quoting Winston Churchill, actually, during an October 2020 United Airlines earnings call. It went like this: 

[T]oday, what we’re expressing is not a shift from pessimism to optimism, as much as it is an expression of confidence in the future. 

There’s a great quote that I love … from Winston Churchill … over two years before the end of World War II …

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” 

And I think that is the moment we’re at now at United Airlines. … [W]e’ll look back at this as the turning point. The light at the end of the tunnel is a long way away. But this is the turning point.

Fast-forward 19 months. United Airlines is apparently now convinced that this is the end, as Churchill would have put it.

  • As Exhibit A, let’s take the plans United Airlines announced this week, expanding its transatlantic flights. United will now fly across the Atlantic Ocean more than all other U.S. airlines combined, and will have 25 percent more transatlantic flights than it did before the start of the pandemic.
  • As Exhibit B, United Airlines’s Boeing 767-400 aircraft will have their business class interiors upgraded to feature the airline’s Polaris class pods, as reported by airline site The Points Guy, instead of more outdated business class seats.

New destinations and increased routes for United Airlines will include destinations in Jordan, Portugal, Norway, and Spain, along with increased flights from the U.S. to Munich, Zurich, Nice, London, Cape Town, Milan, Dublin, Frankfurt, Rome and Ghana.

I want the airlines succeed because I’m an American, and they’re important to the economy, and I like travel. Still, I don’t have a personal stake in their outcomes. I mean that literally; I don’t invest in the travel industry, since I write about it so much.

(Frankly, that’s not much of a sacrifice, since all four of the big publicly traded airlines are down from when I first started writing about them more than five years ago.)

I follow big airlines like this closely and write about them because of the real-time case studies that they offer to people running almost any kind of business. 

It’s wonderful, actually: They’re all publicly traded commodity companies, with an army of analysts, investors and journalists covering their every move.

This week’s announcement, brings with it a big lesson, and it has to do in part with that point about pessimism and optimism that Kirby made back in October 2020. I think you can track how Kirby’s rhetoric as a leader changed over time:

  • First, sure enough, I found him pessimistic, even a bit gloomy at least compared to other airline CEOs in the early days. 
  • Then, he explicitly made a point about being a realist–even as he became an early and clear advocate for strict policies like employee vaccine mandates.
  • Now? If actions speak louder than words, I think the only word that justifies this kind of aggressive expansion is in fact, “optimism,” both that this summer will be one of the biggest in the history of air travel, and that the pandemic is either over or close to over.

And that’s really the big takeaway here. Sure, there are some strategic and tactical decisions that led United Airlines to make its expansion announcements this week — things like its decisions during the pandemic on how many aircraft to put in storage until demand returned, or the priority it puts on getting landing rights at various airports.

But, the simple truth is that a CEO has just one single, powerful tool that he or she can use to lead change, and that tool is the ability to create culture.

We hear it so often that it can sound like a cliche–but as I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 10 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, the reason a lot of things become cliches in business is that they’re actually true.

As a leader, you create create conditions with rhetoric and policy, in the hope that decisions big and small will reflect that culture.

That’s why, perhaps, you choose to quote someone like Churchill at the darkest point of crisis, and it’s why, perhaps, you go big with expansion plans when you reach the beginning of the end.

And it’s maybe why another Churchillian quote seems so apt at this moment, from 1954: “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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