By now, most people are aware that Jeff Smisek is no longer the Chairman, CEO and President of (what used to be) the world’s largest airline, United.
Throughout the afternoon, I received numerous phone calls, texts and e-mails from friends and work colleagues about the news. I’m sure that most of them stemmed from my highly vocalized “breakup” with United in 2014, or from my November 2013 blog post on why Mr. Smisek needed to step down from his leadership role at United (which apparently, made its way around the Willis Tower in Chicago and eventually into Plane Business Banter by Holly Hegeman).
However, truth be told, my reaction to the news was pretty base. As a frequent flier who has converted his loyalties to a wide array of different airlines (ranging from American to Spirit, believe it or not) my emotional stake in United is no longer aflame.
But, I will say that my desire to be a cheerleader for United has returned, and I think that Mr. Smisek’s departure serves as the opportune moment for the carrier to reinvent itself.
Even though I personally will not make any near-term investments, I really want the carrier to succeed under its new CEO, Oscar Munoz.
Barring the reasons for Mr. Smisek’s departure, which I am sure will become more transparent as the investigations proceed, what remains steadfast is that nearly 83,000 employees at United are still going to be showing up to work tomorrow and performing their job duties to help transport millions of United customers into the air over the next few months. Each of these employees carry 83,000 unique stories tabling their professional journeys and how the most recent chapter landed them a career at United.
And yet, it is tough to substantiate whether a large concentration of people among those 83,000 employees have been appearing at work each day for the past several years with a sense of trust in their leadership, starting with their former CEO.
That right there has been the problem, and now, there is an opportunity for all of that to change. As I’ve said many times before, and will say it again, the fish stinks from the head.
The good news is, Mr. Munoz can look to several examples of leaders who have been able to re-modernize beleaguered network carriers in recent years with similar operational and organizational woes: Tom Horton at American Airlines, Richard Anderson at Delta and Doug Parker at US Airways.
The more difficult news is, there is no cookie cutter formula that can be plugged in to fix an ailing airline. United has its own unique set of challenges and differences to address, and its leadership can no longer afford to blame them on poor weather, high oil prices, aging aircraft, a soured economy or marginal hubs.
Rather, the key will remain in re-investing in its employees, particularly on the front-line, to insure that they are better equipped to handle irregular operations, work together as a team and show up to work each day with a smile on their face as opposed to fear of losing their jobs due to $2 billion in cost-cutting initiatives.
In turn, rewarding your employees is what leads to higher customer service and satisfaction scores. Stronger teamwork leads to greater incentives to invest in the future of the company, provide a more reliable and palatable product to customers and all the while, maximizing shareholder return.
Critics say that Mr. Munoz lacks experience working in the airline industry. Well, as Gordon Bethune wrote in his highly-acclaimed novel, From Worst to First, Continental’s legendary turnaround in the 1990’s did not require the leadership skills of an #AvGeek to realize that successful airlines are in the business of transporting people to where they want to go, on-time, with their luggage, in a safe, reliable and predictable way.
Even an #AvGeek would probably find that the thrill of a diversion to Goose Bay wears off quickly after being stranded overnight in military barracks.
As I wish Mr. Smisek adieu for his 5+ years at United, I am shifting my focus on rooting for Mr. Munoz to use this rare opportunity for a fresh start: by invigorating a talented workforce of employees who are motivated to succeed in performing their job duties and operate as one proud, fully integrated airline rather than two legacy ones pitted against each other.
Mr. Munoz, United has the world at its feet and a long list of accomplishments that are within reach. Get your People behind you, and prove to the airline community that you can be Gordy 2.0.
It’s time to fly.