This is a story about United Airlines, leadership, and a big milestone that begins tomorrow.

It's also about a letter that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby sent to 4.5 million United passengers last week.

If you find this interesting, I hope you'll also check out my free e-book, Flying Business Class, which explains why business leaders in every industry should follow the trials and tribulations of the big airlines.

Here's the milestone, the letter, and the seven-word quote that I found most poignant.

Open again

On Monday morning, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. travel ban due to Covid will finally end. 

Starting then, the U.S. will once again admit passengers from dozens of countries who were not allowed to travel here because of the pandemic -- provided that they can show they've been fully vaccinated.

Obviously, they're not all going to come at once. But, for example, United Airlines says it anticipates an immediate 50-percent increase in the number of incoming international passengers -- comparing tomorrow against the 20,000 incoming international passengers the airline serviced a week ago.

It's a big deal. And coming as it does at the start of the 2021 holiday travel season, United sent a letter -- written in Kirby's voice, and over his signature -- welcoming travelers back.

Change for the better

The letter went out Wednesday to millions of United customers. It explains how United reacted to the pandemic in retrospect, why it says it doesn't face staffing shortages, and how its flight attendants have handled unruly passengers, among other things.

But I think there's a short, less-specific passage toward the end that suggests the real lesson for people running businesses in any industry. It goes like this:

United saw the pandemic as an opportunity to change for the better and our team is working hard to make that happen. We won't be perfect and winter weather always impacts some flights, but the bottom line is that our team is ready and eager to welcome you back this holiday season and beyond.

I'm noting the seven key words: "an opportunity to change for the better."

Realism versus optimism

At the start of this year, I started to notice something interesting about the difference between the way Kirby talked about the pandemic and his prognosis for United, compared to, say, how Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, talked about the future.

In short, Bastian kept using variations of words like hope, optimism, and confidence during earnings calls to describe his prognosis, while Kirby explicitly eschewed optimism.

From the beginning of the crisis, our approach has been to be clear-eyed about the challenges and likely course of the recovery. That's often made us appear more pessimistic, and that's perhaps still true today. But being realistic instead of either optimistic or pessimistic has given us a clear advantage.

Now, I don't root for one airline over the other. As a passenger, and as an American, I want them to do well, but I don't invest in them (partly because I write about them so much), and I try to maintain an impartial interest in their success.

But as I think back to that moment nine or 10 months ago, my sense is that there was something more reassuring in proclaiming an explicitly realistic view of the future, as opposed to an optimistic view, given that so many other things about the future of travel remained unknown.

What will the future be like?

Fast-forward to now, however, when the world is opening back up and vaccines are available and approved for adults and children alike -- and the line between optimism and realism seems less pronounced.

In that circumstance, I think the right goal is the one Kirby's letter articulated: not just to get things back to how they were before the start of the pandemic, but to see this whole global struggle, even given all the pain and trauma that people have endured, as "an opportunity to change for the better."

Will United be able to do that? I can't predict, but that's also not really the point. The idea instead is to use this example as a prompt to think about how you're communicating what you think the future will be like to your stakeholders.

  • Are you complaining that "nobody wants to work" and you can't hire good people? Or are you showing how you plan to take the opportunity to change for the better, by recruiting an even better and more motivated team?
  • Are you mired in supply-chain issues? Or are you taking the opportunity to try to change for the better by finding alternative sources and even taking advantage of the similar challenges your competitors face?

I hope this doesn't sound oversimplified, but I also hope it's clear how articulating optimism and higher goals like this can help inspire almost everyone involved in your business. 

See what I mean about following the airlines? There aren't many industries that are followed so closely by so many people, and in which executives also find it necessary to do things like email literally millions of customers to tell them how they feel about the future.

This industry is like a never-ending series of business school case studies if you pay attention, showing how competing companies tackle the same challenges at the same time. 

So, will realism or optimism win the day? Will United, or any of the airlines, or your business, truly take the opportunity to change for the better? Stay tuned.

But in the meantime, don't forget the free e-book, Flying Business Class.