Truth and B.S.: An interview with United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek

A pair of Associated Press writers recently sat down with Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines, and probed him for his thoughts on the current state and future of both United and the airline industry overall. Interviews of this type tend not to reveal anything new or juicy, but I still try to read between lines and will offer some further thoughts here.

First, it was interesting to re-learn that Jeff began his career as a corporate attorney never considering a gig in the airline industry. In 1995 he left a law firm as partner and likely took a huge pay cut to join the turnaround team at Continental Airlines. He remarked, “I was interested in it for sort of the business challenge.”

Here are a few quotes from the article and remarks of my own where I felt compelled:

That last part shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. What will be the next unbundled item? Some airlines are now charging to print boarding passes at the airport, and I eventually expect the majors to jump on this bandwagon in the next few years. I also speculate new onboard items will pop up and think amenity kits will be offered for sale to international economy class passengers.

Here he’s given the common high-level snapshot of each region. I was sort of surprised to hear Latin America is doing so well. I have nothing to base my viewpoint on other than a gut feel business traffic isn’t as strong as leisure here. The all-important U.S. market is still flat and we’re now going into the slow season.

Airlines currently send out blanketed target offers to groups of travelers, but I have to agree they lag far behind other industries in customer-specific data analytics. I know we’ll see highly targeted individual offers based on our travel patterns in the future. I think they’ll go so far as airlines monitoring what routes & fares we search for, but don’t book only to find an email a day or two later offering some type of related call to return. They’ll also increase the amount of bonus mile offers per “extra” flying we wouldn’t normally do based on our history and likely tie them to higher fare basis purchases. I also think the Continental system will win out where upgradable seats at check-in will be offered before elites get their free-bee upgrades.

Here’s where I’ll claim B.S. on Jeff’s part. He openly admitted previously that he knows United’s international service isn’t up to par with Asian or European carriers and wants United to improve it. I looked back at all my posts and can’t find the interview he gave mentioning it, but know he did. I currently go out of my way to fly a carrier in the Star Alliance internationally for their service vs. United’s unless I absolutely need the elite qualifying miles or can confirm an upgrade in advance. I know I’m not alone here.

Here’s where I have a lot of respect for Jeff. I know he consistently engages work groups when he travels. Whether it be at the airports or onboard, he always makes rounds in the secure areas – on the ramp, baggage claim, flight operations – and onboard to get first-hand feedback from his co-workers in the cockpit and galley. An engaging CEO can make things happen for his front-line employees.

Well of course he doesn’t deal with customer emails, but I bet he might scan over some of them from time to time. Executives of large corporations have both a public and private email address at their disposal. Someone on his staff obviously monitors his namesake’s email and would forward anything relevant to him, so your chance of reaching him directly at jeff.smisek@united.com is actually quite slim. It might be fun to shoot him an email there, though, at that address… I’ll try it in the future and report back.

The article continued on with a few personal tidbits about his routine while he’s in Chicago and Houston and offered a small glimpse into the life of how an airline executive lives. He’s an engaging guy having met him previously and I hold a lot of respect for him and his approach to running an airline. I’m definitely not his favorite type of customer, but I do defray his bottom line a little bit each year with revenue for a seat that might have been otherwise flown empty. I’m sure he hates my upgrade percentage, though.

Comments

  1. What is the email address for United Airlines Customer Service … and does CEO Smisek ever get to hear any feedback from email submitted to United customer service?

    • @Jeff: Sorry for the delay. It seems the best way to reach customer relations is via united.com/feedback. The last time I emailed them via that portal, I never received a response, for what it’s worth.

  2. I totally agree with everything you said! Is the worst customer service, I ever experienced from United Airlines, every one is Carless.

  3. United has provided us with the absolute worst customers service imaginable on our honeymoon. Items were stolen from our luggage, they refused to process our claim, straight flight was broken into legs after we paid extra for the direct flight, then we were never compensated. The change moved up a departure and left us unable to make a connection. They tried to charge us for this and I have gotten no reply from customer service or ceo I emailed. They just flat don’t care.

    • @Michelle: Ack! I’m so sorry to hear items were stolen from your bags. With schedule changes, United can switch you onto connections if that’s what’s available due to the change in schedule, but certainly not if you’d miss your connection. Again, I’m sorry to read about your troubles.

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