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

I'm always happy to fly United Airlines.

Wait, what am I saying?

I'm happy to fly United Airlines if the plane is very big -- ah, that one flight a day on a Boeing 777-200 between San Francisco and Chicago -- or if, on your behalf, dear reader, I'm flying in First Class.

Living in the Bay Area means that United offers the broadest choice. 

It doesn't mean, however, that everyone is desperate to fly United above all others.

I know this because United says so.

Last week, the airline's president Scott Kirby offered some candid revelations about United's deficiencies.

As the San Francisco Business Times reported, Kirby offered optimistic tones about the airline's direction: 

We have this reservoir of employees who really love the company, but they got disenfranchised over a couple of decades with all kinds of bad stuff happening. And now, they're able to start seeing success, growing again and being financially successful and we're listening to them.

I suspect the listening thing might be significant.

Kirby went on to say that United does very well with business travelers out here on the West Coast.

However.

He admitted United is trying to extend a hand to, well, those who aren't so keen: 

We're talking to segments of our customers that we don't do as well with: millennials, for example.

It's instructive how an airline -- or, indeed, any company -- can become stuck in its ways.

Its image begins to suffer with a certain segment of its potential customer base, often the younger sorts.

With millennials, there were concrete reasons, ones that Kirby readily confessed: 

There were things about the Virgin product that were attractive to them.

Virgin America doesn't rest in peace.

It was an airline that, because it had at least a little of Richard Branson in its soul, understood that flying was about making people feel good.

It had extraordinary touches such as its soothing purple lighting, its wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, its sumptuous First Class and even its dancing Flight Attendants.

It's all gone. Alaska Airlines overpaid for it and there's just no thrill anymore.

Which leads Kirby to ask a painful question:

What more can we do to be their [millennials'] airline as well and not just the airline of executives?

There may be a fundamental misunderstanding here.

It's not as if executives didn't want to fly Virgin. I suspect many delighted in its comforts.

The reason they fly United now is because it offers sufficient comfort and a sufficient number of connections to be viable.

While Virgin inspired love, United inspires acceptance.

It can't offer what Virgin did, because United's brand image -- and its brand purpose -- is so different from Virgin's. 

United is now trying to talk service, and sometimes it's succeeding. But it's hard for it to escape the image of the big corporation that adores arrant money-making.

Oh, and that passenger-dragging thing, which still gets mentioned far more than it should.

At best, United might try to have a superior frequent flyer program, but every airline is now trying to sneakily devalue theirs.

Then again, not so long ago Kirby claimed that only frequent flyers could be happy with the airline.

You can't pretend to be what you're not. Customers will see through it.

Virgin was a genuinely enjoyable experience and that enjoyment was part of its core.

Rare is the brand that manages to straddle generations and make each of them feel something positive.

Apple, though, has managed it for quite a while.

Worse, how can United suddenly please millennials when its own CEO, Oscar Munoz, says the whole process of flying is so arduous that the airline can't make anyone feel good.

At least United is talking to millennials. It isn't always an easy conversation.

I worry, though, that the airline will take things in a troubling direction. For Kirby revealed: 

In some ways, what's even more important is to try to learn cultural lessons from the tech-startup mentality here.

Oh, and: 

How can we accelerate to look more like a tech company -- to experiment and try things?

Oh, dear. You want to look like a tech company?

You want move fast and break things, United? 

Please be careful. You did break a couple of Dr. David Dao's teeth a couple of years ago.

And look at how so many tech companies are seen now -- pariahs that have destroyed privacy and enabled the destruction of our democracy.

That's what you aspire to?

Still, if United managed to experiment more, perhaps it might surprise passengers -- even millennial ones.

As long as the experiment didn't involve creating all-Basic Economy flights to simulate the living conditions in Erlich's house on Silicon Valley.

Published on: Jun 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.