United’s CEO admits the airline had an unhealthy obsession with rules

Oscar Munoz.
Oscar Munoz.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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In the airline industry’s pitched battle for passengers, on-time arrivals became the essential metric by which they competed. Because nothing was more important to customers than dependability, airlines developed rules and procedures that emphasized ruthless efficiency, said United CEO Oscar Munoz.

That misplaced emphasis, he said, led to last year’s notorious dragging episode, in which United forcibly removed an overbooked passenger.  It also could create a toxic work environment for United’s employees who are forced to prioritize efficiency over their care for customers, Munoz said on an on-stage interview at the annual Society of Human Resources Managers (SHRM) conference in Chicago today.

Asked by Johnny Taylor, SHRM’s president and CEO, about how to manage the 10% of employees of an organization who always seem disgruntled, Munoz said it’s important to understand why they’re unhappy.

He described a gate agent who, after more than 20 years with the airline, had become angry and unmotivated. In a meeting with other employees and Munoz, the gate agent discussed an incident involving a passenger who suffered a heart attack on the jetway waiting to board a plane. When the gate agent reported the medical emergency to United’s zone controller, who had the responsibility for getting flights to depart on time, he was asked if the heart attack victim was preventing the plane from leaving on time. “That, ladies and gentlemen, was not a caring thought,” Munoz said.

In the aftermath of the public relations catastrophe that followed the violent deplaning of David Dao last April, United has reordered its priorities, Munoz said. In the companies’ “core four” principles, “caring” now follows only safety, and comes before efficiency and dependability.

When dealing with passengers, “the answer can’t always be ‘no’,” Munoz said. ”We let rules and procedures get in the way of our people.”

It’s far easier, of course, to announce a reordering of priorities than it is to engrain it as policy in 130,000 employees and contractors, Munoz acknowledged. United’s veteran workforce was particularly weary—having endured mergers, a bankruptcy, and industry convulsions—and some were hard to reach. Munoz says the new policies empower employees to care for customers, but ultimately the proof will come when the airline chooses to put the needs of a passenger over getting a plane to take off on time.