United Airlines’ Jeff Smisek was a featured speaker on the “Sunday Night Live” welcome session at GBTA’s 2011 Convention in Denver fresh off United’s merger with Continental, making it the world’s largest airline at the time. Jeff told us about his plans for United to not just be the world’s largest airline, but to become the world’s leading airline.
During his interview, he said that the new United would operate under the same two principles his mother raised him on: Treat other people as you would like to be treated -and- never tell a lie. Dignity and respect along with direct, open and honest communication would become the basis of the new company’s culture. He talked about $550 million in planned investments in refurbishing the existing fleet as well as new aircraft purchases, all aimed at creating an airline that customers want to fly and an airline that investors want to invest in.
Three years later, we have the opportunity to bring Jeff back on Center Stage and find out where he thinks United stands now. The recent US Airways and American Airlines merger takes the top spot for world’s largest airline. In 2011, Jeff told us it was more important to be the leading airline than the largest. Does he still feel this way? After everything he has learned in the years since the merger, would he have done anything differently?
During my Q&A with Jeff in 2011, we also talked about industry challenges like the critical lack of support the airline industry receives from Washington. Jeff said the U.S. lacks an aviation policy. He said the industry was taxed more than alcohol, tobacco and firearms, and brutally over-regulated – often with regulations that have very little consumer benefit. This trend does not appear to be changing.
GBTA is a strong advocate for fair taxation and fees. Business travelers are not bottomless piggy banks, yet governments often insist on treating them like ATMs. Punishing a key driver of economic growth is the wrong approach though, and we all pay when governments take a short-sighted approach that raises the costs for business travel. I’ll be interested to find out how Jeff thinks the U.S. government is doing today in its support of the aviation industry and what he thinks still needs to change.
It is going to be a great session and one you won’t want to miss.