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How Will United’s New CEO Fix What Its Former CEO Broke?

In the aftermath of United’s abrupt dismissal of its discredited CEO, Jeff Smisek, and the appointment of Oscar Munoz as his replacement, the media, both mainstream and social, has been abuzz with questions and predictions. Trending: How will Munoz fix what Smisek broke?

In an email to members of United’s MileagePlus program, Munoz outlined his plans to regain travelers’ trust and revive the airline’s fortunes. Rather than a few choice outtakes, the entire message reads as follows:

I was recently named the president and CEO of United and would like to take a few moments of your time to introduce myself to you, our valued customer.

I am excited about the incredible opportunity that the United team has to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people. I want us to be your first choice for every trip you take, and we will put in the work needed to get there.

This goal can be achieved by delivering on three things that I believe are critical to any successful business.

First, we must focus on our customers. Getting you to your destination, on schedule, can make or break your ability to succeed in a work endeavor or to hug a family member at an important moment. If our performance has not met your expectations, I want you to know I’m committed to learning how to better meet your needs and desires.

Second, it’s all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose.

Third, this is a company and an industry that demands innovation. We are embracing the changes, and will continue to innovate with the goal of providing our customers better performance, service and products.

Above all, our passion for the safety of our customers and our people will be at the core of everything we do.

My co-workers and I will work each and every day to earn your loyalty by holding true to these principles. We can do better, and will keep listening to our customers to become the top-performing airline. My goal is for you to be as proud to fly United as I am to lead United.

Thank you for flying United.

Oscar Munoz
President and CEO, United Airlines

In what could be interpreted as the first troubling signal, the email’s return address was The new CEO professes a renewed focus on customers, but shows no interest hearing back from MileagePlus members, the company’s best customers. As my dad used to say: talking when he should be listening.

And what’s he talking about? On-schedule flights; employee teamwork (to get passengers where they’re going safely); and innovation (to provide “better performance, service and products”).

It all has a very operational ring to it. If we can get you there on time, United’s problems will be solved. Customer satisfaction will rebound, profits will soar, and the company’s stock price will rise. It’s an elevator pitch for a virtuous circle, with efficiency as its driver.

Simplicity can be a virtue. But when it comes to a company that employs more than 84,000 workers and operates almost 5,000 flights a day, simple solutions aren’t likely to move the needle.

To be sure, Delta in recent years has succeeded by making operational excellence its top priority. But that strategy grew out of Delta’s particular corporate culture and can’t simply be replicated elsewhere by top-down fiat. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Smisek regime has been that its strategy too often seemed to be to copy-cat Delta, its more successful rival. It didn’t work for Smisek, and there’s no reason to expect it to work for Munoz.

Judging by Munoz’s memo to MileagePlus members, United customers have little reason to expect significant improvements anytime soon.

Reader Reality Check

Does Munoz’s plan inspire your confidence in a better United?

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