Will United Airlines Ever Return To The “Friendly Skies?”

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 6 October 2015

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Over the last three weeks there has been a swirl of news reporting and events about United Airlines. United tapped Oscar Munoz, the former chief executive of CSX Corporation, to take the reins as its new chief executive. His appointment was unexpected and announced as part of a shakeup of the airlines management, coming after the resignation of Jeff Smisek, who was ousted in connection with findings from an internal investigation related to a federal probe at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, and after three weeks on the job, Mr. Munoz was quoted as saying he has a challenge, "Uniting from the inside out and look forward rather than backward".

Then today in a follow-up piece in the WSJ he said, “his initial focus as CEO has been meeting with United workers around the country for candid, and sometimes confrontational, discussions, seeking to win back the trust of United’s 85,000 employees, whose morale has suffered and who have become increasingly vocal in their complaints about management. United employees had been “allowed…to be disengaged, disenchanted, disenfranchised—the three nasty D’s,” he said. “I’ve got to win all [of them] back.”

Mr. Munoz is the face behind a new microsite that the company has launched aimed to quell the uprising and restore confidence from all parties. United Airlines continues its efforts to convince passengers and employees alike that the new United is different than the past five years have produced. The main page of the site includes a message from Munoz via video, including the very challenging phrase, “let’s be honest.”

He has placed full-page ads in seven newspapers asking for forgiveness and promising that the future will be different. He has a plan: his first focus is on customers experience and satisfaction, the second is about teamwork and engaging United’s employees, and the third is innovation and embracing change.

These are lofty (no pun intended) aspirations and will take a long time to make their skies “friendly” again. George Bradt, a contributor to Forbes.com and co-author of the best selling book, The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, suggests that Mr. Munoz has 100 days to do the following: 1) get control of the conversation, 2) align his team around a new direction, 3) manage implementation so the planes run on time. Having worked with struggling airlines in the past and other companies in transition, we are in absolute agreement with Mr. Munoz’s approach. Expanding on the objective of aligning the team around a new direction, we would add a few additional thoughts.

It will be critical to find the common ground between management, the unions, and employees. Find a key insight that unites them to be engaged and care about the success in the future of the airlines. What brings them together? The essence of that message can go a long way at building pride, enthusiasm and engagement.

Next the organization has to create a change management communications program with the following characteristics:

  • Authentic and sincere - Avoid platitudes and posturing, be personal and human
  • Honest and factual - Truthful without any added sugar-coating
  • Simple and frequent - Clear, concise, and delivered with expected regularity
  • Real and believable - Something people can relate to and experience firsthand
  • Forward thinking - We clearly see our shared interest, envision our future together
  • Empathetic and reflect concern - Connect with feelings of pain and insecurity
  • Show leadership and confidence - Demonstrate you know what you are doing
  • Delivered through cascading communications utilizing multiple levels of people well-known and respected among your targeted audiences

With these ideas in mind, the core messages should focus on the people (employees, customers, management and the unions), future vision, leadership, a fighting spirit, acknowledgment of errors, and clearing of the air (something he has already started to address).

These prescriptions and ideas will start the process of improving performance, uniting everyone around a common ground, and will rebuild the luster of United’s Friendly Skies.