Oscar Munoz Wants to Put the Heart Back into the Friendly Skies

Listen to United CEO Oscar Munoz talk, and you will hear a lot about heart – how he wants United to lead with heart, how he thinks more heart needs to be incorporated into the business world today and the inevitable discussions of his heart transplant shortly after he took over the reins of one of the world’s biggest airlines.  Indeed, heart seems to be the cornerstone of Mr. Munoz’ mission to redefine the image that United Airlines has both to its own employees and to the traveling public.

During a Q&A session between Mr. Munoz and GBTA Executive Director and COO Mike McCormick during GBTA’s Annual Convention, Munoz offered a candid assessment of his airline, air travel in general, and what his company is doing to improve and innovate air travel for business passengers.

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In September 2015 Oscar Munoz became the new CEO of United Airlines. A month later he suffered a heart attack. In January 2016, Munoz underwent a heart transplant and in March, he was back at the help of United. “It was the thousands of notes I got” from United employees, Munoz says, is what brought him back to the company so shortly after his heart transplant surgery.

While his own story is compelling, Oscar Munoz was also able to share insights on where United and business air travel in general was headed. Although air travel is perhaps the most competitive it has ever been, “If you want to compete, you’ve got to compete… But it’s a people business,” he said. “We’re growing the heart and the caring in this company. I need [United’s] 57,000 employees to be fully vested in the customer experience.”

Heart is one part of Munoz’ personal story as well as the foundation for United’s recent turnaround under his leadership. Much of that drive and focus comes from the “countless” conversations Munoz says he has with employees and travelers alike, as well as being candid about air travel’s past struggles.

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“The airline industry has made travel hell for business travelers. We need to do better to improve the air travel experience. My goal is to show you can run a business with heart that also makes money for its investors.”

United can point to the rollout of its new Polaris Class service as one of its customer-driven innovations that is seeking to improve the customer experience while making money for investors. The new Business Class service has been designed – in part – by the many conversations that Munoz has with United employees on the front line. “The vanity, the bar to pull yourself up are all based on suggestions from employees and customers… We looked at the investment we already committed to a redesign and thought, ‘why don’t we do something really radical?’ That’s what prompted Polaris with a lot of input from customers.”

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Throughout Oscar Munoz’s conversation during this year’s GBTA convention, he often came back to the importance of winning by putting people first, and how “running better is running cheaper.” At the helm of an airline that just celebrated its 90th birthday, United’s CEO has a new contagious enthusiasm for a people-driven airline. Employees are embracing the change in outlook and the company is improving many of its baseline metrics among business travelers.

“A flight attendant once said something to me, which really resonated, ‘I’m sick of having to always say I’m sorry.’ From that one little comment, we were able to make small changes that have had a big impact – from something as small as serving better coffee on up to improve the customer experience. We’re going to show that we care about travelers and win people back.”

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