The New President Speaks: Not that new president. Scott Kirby talks with AW about how to make United great again

dec-5Late one afternoon in late August, two press releases from two airlines announced— moments apart—that Scott Kirby was no longer president of American and had become president of United. The next day, United’s market capitalization increased by $1.3b, almost certainly the airline industry’s largest-ever such surge due to a personnel move. Last week, having just completed his first three months on the job, Kirby spoke with Airline Weekly about what’s next for United.

Airline Weekly: You clearly see a lot of opportunity at United. You also saw a lot of opportunity at American when you first went there, and in fact, American has accomplished a lot in the past few years. Which one, when you walked in the door and looked around—where was the greater opportunity when you got there, at American then or at United today?

Scott Kirby: Well I’m going to be careful drawing that contrast, and actually I’m not going to draw that contrast directly. But there is a lot of opportunity here. One thing I’ll make a contrast with, which has really been my most pleasant surprise, is the attitude—the morale—across the board at United, the optimism for the future. The belief in our ability to be the best… you know, people believe it to the core, that we have the network and the people that can be the best and a real desire to get there, and the belief that we’re going to get there. So, you know, given the hard years that have happened across the whole industry for the last 15 years, but [specifically] at United, the difficulties from the last five years with the merger integration, to come into that attitude and that culture and belief has been energizing.

AW: You said during investor day last month [see Airline Weekly, Nov. 21, page six] that the hubs with the highest percentages of connecting traffic tend to be the most profitable hubs. And that was interesting and somewhat counterintuitive to hear. A lot of us tend to think if you could start a hub anywhere, hey, put it in a place with a lot of high-yielding local demand— people willing to pay a premium for the nonstop flight—and then backfill the empty seats with [lower-yielding] connecting traffic.

SK: And that is the history of how people thought in the airline industry for many years. And it was true. But [now] the local demand actually, in most hubs, has lower yields than a big percentage of the connecting de…

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