Oscar Munoz, United Airlines’ new CEO, spoke candidly about United’s bad reputation — and bad coffee

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CHICAGO — Like many United fliers in recent years, Oscar Munoz was recently on a lousy flight to Chicago.

It was Labor Day, just after his daughter got married and just before he took over as CEO of the airline. He was in the seat he always seems to get, 22A, on a cramped 50-seat regional jet. Two people were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked. The plane was delayed on the tarmac for about a half-hour, only to experience further delays upon landing because an airport gate wasn’t ready. Then he had what seemed like a “five-hour wait for my luggage to get there.”

Yet through that, his most vivid recollection is Jenna.

Jenna was the flight attendant on that miserable trip. “Throughout that whole disaster, her smile, her willingness to take care of everybody on that small flight, asking ‘more ice, more drinks, anything else I can do?’”

As he waited at the baggage carousel, he sidled up anonymously to a young couple and prodded them for complaints, “Can you believe how long this luggage thing is taking?”

They agreed but quickly mentioned Jenna. “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?”

Munoz called that a watershed moment for him as he takes the controls at the world’s second-largest airline.

“Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said. “The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people.

“If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.”

In an exclusive wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Tribune, Munoz talked about many topics, including coffee.

But most topics circled back to the importance of people, namely United customers and his 84,000 employees based in the headquarters city of Chicago and around the world. The time for investing in the people aspect of the air travel is now, he said, when United, like the rest of the airline industry, is on sound financial footing thanks to lower jet fuel prices and full planes.

In the interview, Munoz was long on platitudes but short on specifics, mostly, he said, because he wants employees to hear about new initiatives from him before they read it in the press. Here’s what he had to say:

—The mea culpa. “The journey hasn’t always been smooth,” Munoz, 56, a longtime United board member and the former heir apparent to the CEO job at railroad company CSX, wrote in an open letter to passengers and employees published in 13 publications across the country. “Simply put, we haven’t lived up to your expectations. … That’s going to change.”

To that end, United introduced a new website, UnitedAirtime.com, aimed at creating a dialogue with customers and employees, instead of him trying to respond individually to email, often at 3 a.m. as he’s been doing, he said.

The email topics are many, including, he said, “congratulations, good luck, let me tell you how you suck.”

—Culture, scandal and innovation. It’s notable that his predecessor, Jeff Smisek, also talked often and at length about the airline’s corporate culture when he took over five years ago. But by any objective measure, he failed to turn around the airline’s toxic work atmosphere, poisoned by a devastating 2002-06 bankruptcy at United. Likely as a result, United’s reputation among the flying public has remained poor, ranking dead last among major North American airlines in customer satisfaction, according to the J.D. Power 2015 North America Airline Satisfaction Study.

Smisek was ousted last month not for management failures, United says, but amid a federal corruption probe in New Jersey. Munoz declined to talk about the brewing scandal regarding United adding a special air route to South Carolina to potentially curry favor with the now-former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates New York-area airports.

However, Munoz did call it an “isolated incident” that won’t harm the company’s brand or finances. He joked, “I will need a ghost writer at some point in time to write the book on this whole drama.”

—Triple-Ds. Traveling around the United network to meet with employees in recent weeks, Munoz has encountered what he called “not a happy bunch” that can be described with the “triple-Ds”: disenchanted, disenfranchised and disengaged, he said.

“Those three are just killers in regards to a business that is service-oriented,” he said. “I need to get those folks reconnected … the people part is my first priority.”

—On coffee and contracts. As Munoz continues a 90-day meet-and-greet tour around United’s network, one flight attendant told him there were just two things he had to get right, coffee and contracts. Though not a coffee drinker himself, Munoz said he is well aware of its importance to fliers. And more generally, how little things matter.

Contracts refers to labor contracts, which affect employee pay and working conditions. United’s 24,000 flight attendants are one of two groups whose contracts are left undone five years after United’s merger with Continental.

—Yes, if. Munoz, whose father was a union meat cutter and who dealt with a heavily unionized railroad workforce at CSX, said his philosophy in dealing with contentious issues in labor negotiation is to approach it with a “yes, if” attitude. That is, “Yes, I can agree to that, if we can agree on such-and-such,” which Munoz concedes leads to the same discussion but strikes a more conciliatory tone.

“This dignity-and-respect aspect of labor goes a long way to resolving these things,” he said. “We’re going to get those (contracts) done.”

—Early wins. Munoz wasn’t divulging specifics but said he plans “early wins” for customers and employees — things that don’t cost the company much but are meaningful to people. For customers, in addition to upgraded coffee, Munoz teased hypothetical changes, including a less complicated and structured boarding procedure, lower bereavement fares and even altering bag fees and flight-change fees.