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United Thinks They Aren’t to Blame for Unhappy Customers

United Thinks They Aren’t to Blame for Unhappy Customers
Jeff Edwards

Echoing the sentiments of his boss, CEO Oscar Munoz, United Airlines President Scott Kirby blamed the trials and tribulations of modern life, in part, for the carrier’s public perception as a less-than-customer-friendly entity. In comments to an employee group obtained by Live and Let’s Fly, he placed some of the blame for the airline’s troubled reputation on inexperienced flyers.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz made headlines recently after seeming to admit that passengers aren’t happy with the current state of air travel. While he admitted that flyers are becoming fed up with ever more crowded cabins and shrinking airplane, the airline executive indicated that much of what makes air travelers unhappy is out of his control.

“I think we are nearing a point certainly that we can’t do that anymore,” Munoz told ABC News’ David Kerley. “It’s [air travel] become so stressful, from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security. Frankly, by the time you sit on one of our aircraft, you’re just pissed at the world.”

Now, United President Scott Kirby appears to have seized on his boss’s talking points. Speaking with an employee group about customer service issues, he struck a remarkably familiar-sounding refrain.

“I would argue there’s a rationale for it,” Kirby said in the comments obtained by Live and Let’s Fly. “To a frequent flyer who knows all the rules, who understands how to get through TSA, who knows our rules about changing flights and when they can upgrade and when they can’t, that feels professional, because it’s black and white. I know all the rules. To somebody who doesn’t fly often, the rules don’t make sense. They’re already tense, they’re stressed, trying to get through security, trying to get to the airport on time, figure out where to park their cars, you know, all that stuff. And then they get here and what doesn’t make sense to them feels like a set of black and white rules, that we’re this big company that just doesn’t care.”

Discussing ways United might change the public’s often less than a favorable perception of the company, Kirby suggested that frontline workers will be given more latitude to help solve customer service issues whenever they arise. He stopped short, however, of providing details about how much authority employees will actually have to rectify those problems.

“So a lot of this is about empowering you to take care of customers and do the right thing for customers, but getting all of us to start to recognize that we’ve got to change how people feel and so that they feel like we care and that really is our mission,” Kirby continued. “If I have one request from all of you it’s to do that. To start to think about how people perceive us, how our customers perceive us. Actually, it’s not even just our customers, it’s the community at large. How others perceive United Airlines.”

Kirby also suggested that United (and the other big three U.S. airlines) may bear the brunt of the public’s ire, while smaller carriers such as Southwest Airlines are sometimes given a free pass. He suggested that management and rank-and-file employees should focus on the things that are within their control to fix.

“We need to, in 2019 and beyond, start to change how people feel about United Airlines,” Kirby admonished. “And a lot of time I will hear from employees that will say, ‘Why does United always get beat up in the press and Southwest gets a free pass? It’s not fair.’ Maybe it’s not fair. Also completely irrelevant whether it’s fair or not, because it is what it is.”


[Image Source: United]

View Comments (43)


  1. strickerj

    May 3, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    What a tone-deaf attitude by United’s leadership – Southwest doesn’t get “beaten up” in the press because they haven’t been shrinking their seats and lavatories, nickeling-and-diming customers with extra fees, and forcibly removing passengers on oversold flights. As long as United thinks all their problems are the fault of their customers, they’ll never change.

  2. diver858

    May 3, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    Southwest’s on-time performance is in free fall, flight cancellations are frustrating customers, fares are far from the lowest, yet their marketing machine continues to be effective keeping lipstick on the pig.

  3. StrongEagle

    May 3, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Maybe Munoz and Kirby could fly economy class on Singapore Air, or Thai Air, or ANA or EVA or Cathay and find out what pleasant cabin crew is all about.

  4. 2old4coach

    May 3, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    Business is too good. Keep up the bad treatment. Oscar fly your airline in coach. Make all your bloated management fly coach.
    Time to break up the Big 3. Remember when Contenental was a good airline? Virgin America was fun. Wait until United and all the big 3 business dries up.
    Then they will come back to us in Bankrupcy and pick our pockets again and ask for government help.
    Break up the big 3!!

  5. topman

    May 3, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Scott Kirby needs to spend an afternoon in Terminal A at EWR. It will give him an insight on why people hate United. Their gate agents SUCK

  6. cfh

    May 3, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Actually a lot of their rules are stupid. It’s just that frequent fliers have learned their way around them…or just given up.

    Southwest has avoided some of the most egregiously abusive rules but last time I checked their seats were as shrunken as anyone and their fares were no lower.

  7. azmojo

    May 3, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    I agree that knowing the rules and the ins and outs of everything helps a bunch. But does or should it need to be that complicated? I think a lot of it might come from what people remember about the legacy carriers… the ability to pick any seat, reasonable change fees/policies, and no baggage fees. Southwest might not technically be the lowest, but they are if you consider that their fares (even their lowest) are essentially refundable fares so long as you can fly enough to re-use the credit, and the fact that the ticket price is the ticket price unless you absolutely need to be one of the first onto the plane.

  8. quant_93

    May 3, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    One of the reasons people beat up on the big 3 is that they are the big 3. The mergers that created them greatly reduced competition (when they argued it wouldn’t) and forced people to fly certain airlines due to fortress hubs. Another reason is that LCC airlines are awful, but they admit it. You get what you pay for. The big 3 portray themselves as above an LCC, yet are in a race to the bottom to become just as awful. People expect more from a big 3 airline than they do from Spirit or Ryanair because the big 3 tell us that they are much better than that and then don’t deliver. With this attitude Untied fliers are screwed. Kirby doesn’t care about pleasing his customers at all, just maximizing the $$ he can squeeze out of them.

  9. rrz518

    May 3, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    United is as tone-deaf as ever.

  10. allenaustralia

    May 3, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    United is a budget carrier like AirAsia, Tiger Airways & Peach. Of course flying a budget carrier is always more stressful than a full service civilized carrier like Singapore Airlines, Qantas or Garuda.

    The chairman and CEO are 100% right, as there is not much more they can do to make customers happy on a budget carrier .
    People from the USA need to accept that United is a budget carrier, as it has been for atleast 10 years and adjust their expectations.

  11. QameraTravels

    May 3, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    It’s all relative. We talk about United here in the U.S. and the executives blame the issues on how stressful it is to even get to the airport. I wonder if they have ever traveled in Asia? Speaking of which, I wonder why no U.S./based airline is even in the top 15 globally? It’s pretty obvious if you have travelled internationally and compared…

  12. MiamiFlyer

    May 3, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    After millions of miles and decades of flying the big three, my first choice is now Southwest. Much better service, fewer hassles and people who seem to really care.

    My only regret is that they do not have more International destinations

  13. k_jupiter

    May 3, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    What strickerj said.
    Somehow I am not stressed when I fly Premium economy on NZ Air, nor Icelandic Air. But put me in Economy Plus with the whole 3 inches of additional legroom, side to side familiarity with my neighbor, the same crappy United food I’ve been eating for a decade, surly flight attendants, and United looks like crap. Not their fault. And let’s not talk about economy. Please let’s not talk about it.
    I flew to Korea in United business class a year ago, returned on Korean Air Business, the difference was amazing.. Had nothing to do with car parking, security, rushed connections, etc. It had to do with a flight staff that took pride in their job, a piece of steak done exactly to my request (On an airplane!) comfortable seats, and a bursar who came and told me that if I needed anything, just call him. That flight wasn’t United’s fault either. It was Korean Air’s.
    Somehow United lost its way. But it’s not their fault!

  14. mbgaskins

    May 3, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    I had to laugh. These guys in charge of the airlines are the biggest idiots on the planet. They are making record profits today at the expense of tomorrow.

    “To a frequent flyer who knows all the rules, who understands how to get through TSA, who knows our rules about changing flights and when they can upgrade and when they can’t, that feels professional, because it’s black and white. I know all the rules. To somebody who doesn’t fly often, the rules don’t make sense.”

    As somebody who flys a lot… 40 plus trips a year… the rules don’t make any sense. Worse yet there are no rules and they just make up stuff on the fly.

    And as far as southwest goes. They are what they are and nobody expects anything from them. That is why they don’t get hammered in the press. They make few promises but deliver on those promises. The Big 3 can’t deliver on any promise.

    Also, Southwest appears to treat their employees well. The hustle and are happy. The Big 3 treat their employees like crap, and that gets passed on to the customers. They have no authority to treat a customer well.

    Just another example of idiots rising to their level of incompetence.

  15. baggins

    May 3, 2019 at 5:44 pm

    strickerj – You are mistaken. Southwest AIrlines has 17″ seat width on 737-700 & 737-800. United runs 17.2″ width and up on most of their flights. Disclosure: I usually fly SWA but try to avoid flying whenever possible. If I am forced to sit in a middle seat between two large males I will have nowhere to put my shoulders (19″ width) and arms (20″ width). I actually spent a flight crooked in my seat waiting for one or both of my seatmates to lean forward so that I could lean back and claim some real estate. That is no way to fly.

  16. DLittman

    May 3, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    I was treated extremely well recently by a United agent when I had to cancel three different flights. After I explained the reason for the cancellation (medical treatment), the change fee was waived. Two of the flights were mileage and the miles appeared back in my account instantly. The third was a revenue ticket and the dollars are available for another flight once I am able to travel. I wrote a note to the agent’s supervisor and was promptly thanked by the supervisor. I appreciate how this was handled.

    At the same time, mileage plus miles are being devalued, meaning that this benefit associated with loyalty to an airline has less value. Southwest has no change fees while major airlines continue to rely on these as a source of revenue. I would venture a strong prediction that if the majors did away with change fees, customer attitudes would improve overnight. Southwest is financially successful in this model. It is hard to understand why United would not be as well.

    Somehow Southwest’s flight attendants manage usually to be friendly and upbeat. I have noticed an effort by some United flight attendants on recent flights, but it is neither consistent nor uniform. Somehow, having a friendly approach when crammed into a seat way too small for the average male body makes the seat seem just a bit larger and not quite so uncomfortable.

  17. Scottlee3441

    May 3, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    I put in a complaint and called 5 time they never called me back been 1K for 10 years

  18. horseymike

    May 3, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    Treating people like sardines may have something to do with it. Grow a pair and bring back aircraft that accommodate adults.

  19. BradJankowski

    May 3, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Two free checked bags and no fee (free) charges to change tickets earns a whole lot of goodwill on Southwest. People are a lot more willing to forgive problems/issues when they aren’t being nickled and dimed. Southwest should get a lot of credit for standing firm on their business model and the public knows and appreciates that!

  20. Sabai

    May 3, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    Isn’t Southwest particularly affected by the grounding of the DeathMax?

  21. snidely

    May 3, 2019 at 6:41 pm

    SWA hasn’t been a low cost carrier for years. Eg. It costs over $200 (most of the time to fly from Bay Area airports to most so. Cal. airports. We can fly from Bay Area on Jet Blue (with bigger seats) to FLL, BOS etc. – often for less. Even United (w. its cramped seats to east coast is cheaper.
    Alaska Air is starting to offer good fares within Ca.

  22. Mtothe M

    May 3, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Smisek was a sniveling greaseball – so much so he got himself put under federal investigation after a hasty departure from United.

    I just flew Southwest a couple of weeks ago. When talking about the fine for disabling the smoke detector in the bathroom, the flight attendant ended the pre-recorded message by proclaiming “if you’ve got that kind of money for fines, you should’ve just flown United in the first place!” to a rousing round of applause/laughter.

    United just completely blew up the winning Continental brand, and travelers are much worse for it – though they’re joined by the other major guys too.

  23. DCWoodworth

    May 3, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    What nonsense from Mr. Kirby!

    What Southwest does has no bearing on perception of United.


    United has gone from my number one airline, back when I was a road warrior in the 70’s and 80’s, from my last choice, period. This is entirely due to poorer and poorer treatment by United, incrementally, on each and every journey.

    The final straw was when I shelled out personal dollars for Business Class tickets (at full price), to Central America with the intention of embarking on a Panama Canal Cruise and beyond. Both of our suitcases were lost.

    Even though I had taken the precaution of arriving one day before the cruise, in particular to avoid just this type of problem- The baggage office refused to send our bags along to our ship. Way too much trouble! Their best offer was to send our bags back to our point of US departure. So we were faced with a week on a ship at sea, without anything more than the clothes on our backs.

    Only with the outstanding cooperation of the Waldorf Astoria and Paul Gauguin Cruises were able to retrieve our luggage.

    So, Mr. Kirby, this veteran says you are full of it!

    David Woodworth

  24. dimeadozen

    May 3, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    strickerj is fundamentally right; the airlines – with Untied being among the worst – have messed with the booking, boarding and flying experience so much that it’s nearing self-abuse to fly. Tone-deaf they are.

  25. sdsearch

    May 3, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Southwst doesn’t advertise Polaris, so people don’t expect much, and are satisfied with what they get. United being an airline with mutliple cabins, when they advertise how great it is in some upfront cabin that most people can’t afford, then there’s too high a comparison point for those people when they sit in back. (And it’s not just advertising, it’s also walking through First Class to get to the back.)

    So it’s inevitable that any mutli-class airline is likely to get rated a bit lower by the people who sit in thee back, compared to a single-class airline where everyone get to choose any available seat as they walk onto the plane. On Southwest, nobody can be envious of someone sitting somewhere else on the plane, while that’s easy on a multi-class plane.

    That doesn’t mean the solution is to make all airlines be single-class, it just means you have to factor that in to understand how Southwest can get such high marks.

  26. 2stepbay

    May 3, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    Seems to me shrinking plane seats and less leg room in economy are the greatest source of ire towards the airline industry. The shrinking cabin is a health and safety issue that political types refuse to acknowledge due to lobbyists influence. As long as airlines remain focused on pleasing shareholders regardless of how it adversely affects passengers safety, this ire will continue to grow, leading to more and more cabin disruptions.

  27. loot87

    May 4, 2019 at 12:42 am

    Interesting comment about Southwest being a smaller carrier when they’ve had more passengers than United since 2015.

  28. CaliforniaSteve

    May 4, 2019 at 5:17 am

    Right…..not the fault of the airline. If that’s the case, you should see similar unhappiness pretty much equally on all airlines. I don’t see this level of unhappiness at, say, Singapore Airlines, EVA Air, JAL or ANA. Sure, passengers complain about them, but they complain more about changes in amenities or food quality or something that happened on a particular flight. They don’t trash the entire airline, which is the case with the big three in the US.

    Face it Oscar. You and your cohorts at AA and Delta have made the situation you are now saying isn’t your fault.

  29. gre

    May 4, 2019 at 6:16 am

    What a load of do-do!
    I know how to get to the airport, where to park, and how to get through security.
    My beef is that UA treats me so poorly.
    Except for the phone staff, UA employees seem to ooze universal disdain for the customers.

  30. skidooman

    May 4, 2019 at 6:40 am

    What is in your control Scott?

    How about not squeezing people like sardines? Not charging for a first bag, ever, so people don’t bring their pantry in the cabin and there is no more rush to get into the plane?

    I remember a time when the boarding zone was a lot more orderly. It was back in the days when there was no bag charges. Strange: suddenly there was a lot less stressed travelers.

    Here is another thing within your control Scott: ensure top notch service. United can certainly do some catch up there compared to the best in its class, right?

  31. MimiB22

    May 4, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Maybe if United stopped shrinking seats and bathrooms, maybe if they stopped making their rules so onerous and complex, passengers wouldn’t feel like they’re flying on the Unfriendly Skies airline. Not everyone buying a ticket is a travel pro. Customers shouldn’t have to be in order to have a good experience, yet it seems like UA management demands they be experts in order to avoid being mistreated.

  32. LookingForRewards

    May 4, 2019 at 8:02 am

    United’s treatment of customers changed as soon as the merger was complete with the former Continental Airlines. I flew Continental for years and they were a pretty good airline. As soon as the merger was completed, I noticed a lot mean attitudes from the counter and gate workers and especially the flight attendants.

    Now United really sucks… and they want to blame the customers? That really shows what their true attitude from the CEO on down!

  33. Danwriter

    May 4, 2019 at 8:13 am

    SWA knows its core base is infrequent fliers, and it’s learned to accommodate them. (And recent OT performance issues are almost all attributable to the 738 Max.) UA’s executive team’s cluelessness is painful to read.

  34. darthbimmer

    May 4, 2019 at 10:36 am

    UA execs do have a point that travelers who don’t understand the system may unfairly place blame on UA (or any particular airline) for things not the airline’s doing, such as policies at the security checkpoint. I have heard so many times from infrequent-traveler friends and family, “I can’t believe X happened at the checkpoint. United is the worst!”

    But that’s also the thing… ALL the big airlines are behind the checkpoint. If UA passengers complain more than, say, WN passengers, clearly it’s because UA is not satisfying them as well.

  35. CEB

    May 4, 2019 at 11:36 am

    Obviously strickerJ didn’t read the article. Neither Munoz nor Kirby made any excuses. And Edwards title is even less relevant and totally inflammatory as again, United did NOT deny that they are part of the problem, they simply did what any good manager in a customer facing industry would do, encourage their people to do what is in their power to help their customers feel better and to solve their problems where they can.

    Just another couple stupid reactions to a sincere effort on the part of United to find ways to makes things better while still realizing that they are in business to make a profit, whiteout which they would not create any jobs and we would not be able to travel with any sort of comfort whatsoever at a reasonable price.

    I would be flabbergasted to ever see a positive reaction or twist on any efforts that the airlines might make by people such as the degenerate bloggers we find covering the travel industry.

  36. deduckfan

    May 4, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    So Southwest customers have an easier trip to the airport, find convenient parking spots, and fly through TSA but United’s customers don’t?

  37. drphun

    May 4, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Southwest’s employees are so nice and helpful, even when someone is upset about a situation, it is hard to be mad at Southwest

  38. Pdquilt

    May 4, 2019 at 2:01 pm

    Having been a frequent flyer in the past on United Airlines and for quite a few years now on Southwest Airlines, there is no comparison at all. Southwest employees have a great attitude and treat customers with respect. United just really does not care about the customer. One example I can give about United is that my daughter was in a life threatening accident and I needed to quickly get to the hospital in a different state. I had many miles saved on United and was required to use twice the normal amount of miles to be guaranteed that I would actually get there quickly. Then when I got to Chicago they told me I could not have a seat on the last leg of the flight inspire of charging twice the normal amount of miles for my ticket. I did everything I could to nicely explain the problem and then called a relative back in CA who got on the phone and tried to make something happen to get me on the flight. Finally a kind soul in Chicago told the United employee that they would give me their seat and they would take a seat on a later flight. If not the the kind soul, I would not have made it to the hospital. For 3 weeks we did not know if my daughter would live or not and thankfully I was able to be there, no thanks to United. That, for me, is just one of the many examples of United employees not being kind or helpful no matter what the circumstances. I no longer use a Mileage Plus credit card for United for all my normal purchases, but do use a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card for everything. I have never had any problem at all using my Southwest miles.

  39. GTJoe

    May 4, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    On one hand, I believe that they have a point in the statement that there are a lot of things that frustrate passengers prior to ever interacting with the company. Many things ARE out of their control and sometimes they (United) get blamed unfairly. On the other hand, I think that the statement might come off as a bit tone deaf given recent history. In the words of Top Gun, they need to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy.

  40. sukki007

    May 5, 2019 at 1:46 am

    I don’t fly a whole lot, but my usual route is to EWR. Continental used to be my airline of choice, but we all know how that turned out. Now, even though I have a United Mileage card (with no status), my choice is SWA. Even though I can fly non-stop with UA, and SWA always requires a connection. Even though the flight is often a couple of bucks cheaper with UA. Why? Because I can cancel a flight with no penalty, as I’ve had to do several times in the last year. Because I can take two bags with me at no charge, handy for all the stuff I need to bring back from the east coast. Because SWA will give me a choice of snacks on those cross-country flights. Because the FAs are usually pleasant, and sometimes even fun.

    But I do like to give credit where it’s due, so I have to say that on my last flight, SIN return HKG, UA treated me exceptionally well; it was an Awards flight, and when I asked for consideration due to a broken clavicle (and unrelated mobility issues), they upgraded me to Economy Plus on three of the four flights involved, and on two also made sure that there was a middle seat next to my aisle one, so that my right arm wouldn’t be jostled. They would have done it on all four legs, but couldn’t due to full flights on the short connections. So maybe there is hope for UA after all.

  41. mark_s

    May 5, 2019 at 9:00 am

    I am honestly baffled by the selections made by corporations for senior leadership. This guy is a blithering idiot. That was apparent from the “fight club” incident back in 2017. When I look at incompetent executives like this guy in the light of the recent elite colleges admission bribery scam, I suspect (perhaps erroneously) that these are just heritable positions passed around among the rich. (And I’m no socialist.) I wouldn’t hire this guy to run gas station, much less an airline.

  42. SportDiver

    May 7, 2019 at 6:05 am

    If Mr. Munoz and UA leadership were serious about customer satisfaction, they would not bleed their customers for every possible $ profit over the past decade or so. The “Big 3” airlines are all about profits and greed in their Boardrooms. And it shows with the general dissatisfaction of many of their employees.
    FWIW, I just flew r/t on WN yesterday. All their personnel, whether at the gate or on the plane, treated customers with respect and a touch of humor. How refreshing to be reminded that we all have choices as to customer loyalty.

  43. spartacus

    May 10, 2019 at 12:48 pm

    Marriott says, “Hold my beer.” The stories about getting Bonvoyed have taken center stage and JW is surely spinning in his grave. Not the same company focused on customer service and reputation that was required reading when I was a Hotel student at UNLV in the early 80’s.

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