This is a story about United Airlines, and perhaps the three most welcome words for any business in 2021. It's exactly the kind of thing that I cover in my free e-book Flying Business Class, which you can download here.

During the pandemic, it's been noticeable how United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has stood apart from some of his competitors, by striking a tone of "realism" about the future, as opposed to "optimism."   

As he said during an earnings call in January, for example: 

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.

But, hold that thought. Kirby did a live video interview last week with David Ignatius, columnist at The Washington Post. And I think Kirby might just have become an optimist. 

His outlook can be summarized by three short (may I say beautiful?) words that any business leader would like to hear: "huge pent-up demand."

The context:

[A]fter all we've been through as a society in the last 14 months, you can clearly see huge pent-up demand and desire for people to get back out and experience the world ...

Now, I'm going to share two reasons to be skeptical about this take, then a third reason that will restore hope, and finally the reason why it matters no matter what business you're in.

First, the reasons for skepticism. I'm a recovering lawyer turned writer, so you'll have to excuse my proclivities:

  1. So far, it's largely an anecdotal prognosis, and it's subject to change. Yes, people want to travel, but the pandemic isn't over, and there are still entire countries Americans aren't supposed to visit.
  2. To this point in his conversation with the Post, Kirby was talking primarily about the rebound of tourist and other non-business travel. That's nice to have. But an airline like United Airlines makes its real money in business travel.

I hate to pour so much cold water. So let's quickly go to the reason that will restore hope. 

Because when Kirby was asked specifically about business travel, he related a three-part anecdote. It went like this: 

  • April 2020: The CEO of a company whose employees do a lot of travel on United told Kirby that he thought his company was simply going to reduce travel by 50 percent going forward.
  • Fall 2020: The same CEO, Kirby said, told him now that he predicted business travel would decline less -- maybe 25 percent from 2019 levels.
  • January 2021: Same CEO, new conversation. As Kirby recalled: "We realize ... it's really hard to keep our culture together if we're not together. [A]t least for the first year or two, once we're allowed to travel, we're going to have to travel more than we did in 2019."

One big customer, over the course of a year, had gone from predicting a 50 percent reduction to an increase, Kirby said. That's the kind of thing that's sparked his optimism.

"Our bet is that business travel is going to come back," he said, "and that is because business travel is about human relationships and human interactions. And as tough as this pandemic has been, it has not changed human desire to be together."

As regular readers might know, I think business leaders in every industry should watch and learn from the airlines.

It's not that they do everything right. But they're in a commodity industry, trying to differentiate themselves from one another, and doing everything under the highest levels of public scrutiny. 

It's like getting a new business school case study to learn from, almost every week, so you can step back, extrapolate, and figure out how the steps they take would work in your business. Here, at least two things spring to mind.

The first has to do with that beautiful phrase: "huge pent-up demand."

I'm sure you're already anticipating or hoping for this. But to what degree can you plan for a recovery that doesn't just get you back to where you were, assuming you've lost something, but also makes up for lost time?

The second has to do with listening deeply to what your customers tell you -- maybe even more deeply than they listen to themselves.

Because Kirby says he's confident that CEO he quoted wouldn't actually remember having predicted his air travel would go down 50 percent, then down 25 percent, and then actually up 20 percent or so.

That means that Kirby would have more insight about at least one aspect of his customer's business than the customer has himself. 

Have you ever been in that situation? I'm going to guess the answer is yes. And if so, can you take customers at face value -- but also assess the trends they articulate, even when they don't realize the value of the information they're sharing?

It's a pretty useful trick if you can pull it off. And that makes it something to be very optimistic about.