Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

There was a time when United Airlines and American Airlines seemed largely interchangeable: big, dull, customer-unfriendly, and very slightly overbearing.

In the past couple of years, United has strained to be better. Or at least different. Or at least not the airline that drags customers off flights and bloodies their faces. In the past couple of years, American has strained to make things worse when it might have seemed so much easier to make them better.

It isn't just that American has come to represent the airline that'll stuff as many seats as possible into a plane in the most uncomfortable way.

It's that whenever its senior executives speak, they seem to care only about cost-cutting and profit rather than quaint human concepts such as customer experience.

Last week, United Airlines announced that former American Airlines president and current United president Scott Kirby would next year become CEO. As my colleague Bill Murphy Jr. explained, the transition seems to have been well thought out.

What fascinated me, however, were the comments made by others about Kirby. Especially by Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesman for the airline's pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association. He said

Scott is not a warm and fuzzy kind of person, but he takes risks and is detail-oriented. He's also a shrewd negotiator. Back in 2012, he was the first executive to meet in person with American pilots about the proposed merger with U.S. Airways and try to sell the plan to them.

All complimentary enough, you might think. Oddly, American's pilots are currently pressing for negotiations on a new contract and it may not be going swimmingly. Why do I get the impression that Tajer hopes to deal with a more shrewd negotiator? Does he wish it were Kirby?

There was more. Tajer, you see, chose to add something revealing in his description of Kirby:

He has been wildly successful in his first few years at United.

He didn't need to say that. He could have merely wished Kirby well. He could have said he looks forward to competing with him.

Instead, perhaps you, too, can detect a certain admiration in Tajer's words for the current situation at United and the airline's attempts to emerge from the emotional sewer. United's finances are significantly improved and its network is increasingly dynamic, while its brand image has unquestionably become more human. (Yes, it began at a very low base, but still.)

All of which not only contrasts with many people's general impressions of American these days, but also with Tajer's recent words about his own airline.

In October, CNBC offered a rather painful picture of American and its internal and external battles. It spoke of shareholder pressure for American chairman and CEO Doug Parker to step down -- or at least relinquish the title of chairman. It described a high level of employee disgruntlement. 

Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants -- which represents American's flight attendants -- offered these distraught words: 

Morale is at an all-time low. 

She said flight attendants were "tired of apologizing for everything that's going wrong with the airline."

And there was a quote from Tajer: 

Our very pilots are asking the same questions that shareholders are asking and passengers are asking. When will it get better? 

So Kirby, the former American executive, is being wildly successful. And American Airlines without him is not. 

It's not the first time, indeed, that Tajer has questioned Parker's ability to make things right. In June, Tajer and his union offered this pithy question to American's management: 

What specific actions has your team taken to improve the culture at American Airlines and what steps still remain?

Then there was another: 

Why do you think American Airlines lags its peers both operationally and financially?

American's operational performance showed some improvement last month. Yet the airline has much to do to change perceptions both within and outside the company. And how must it feel when it hears its employees praising United's new CEO, while being highly critical of their own?

It's not as if United is going to be without its issues, however. Kirby has some labor negotiations of his own coming up.

Moreover, some of those I've spoken to at the airline fear hell may come about after Kirby's ascension. As Tajer says, Kirby isn't renowned as a people person. Some jest that, though his knowledge and courage are vast, he's an advanced version of robot-human hybrid. He is, indeed, the man who compared getting on a United plane to going to a concert, so families should expect to pay more to sit together. (He later agreed this wasn't the finest analogy.)

At the heart of all this, however, I see PR's hovering heart.

In most recent times, current United CEO Oscar Munoz -- and Kirby, too -- have been at pains to parade their people-sensitivity. They realize -- or have been forcefully told by PR types -- that brand perception is an important component of brand choice and employee motivation.

By contrast, it appears that Parker either doesn't get any PR advice or perhaps doesn't listen to any. In a recent New York Times interview, even his thoughts about the crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max seemed hollow and disengaged. Even when the ill-fated plane first entered service for American, he admitted he'd never flown in it and didn't see why this was a big deal.

One can't help thinking that Tajer's frustration -- thinly veiled in his comments -- stems from constantly witnessing such manifest myopia.

One can't help also thinking that Tajer's deeply enthusiastic words about Kirby suggest everything at American could have been very different. And should be.

Published on: Dec 8, 2019
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