Do Better, Mr. Kirby

In an email to his employees several days ago, which he doubled down on in a CNBC interview, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, said “I’m… frustrated that the FAA frankly failed us this weekend.”

Though my heart bleeds for Mr. Kirby, his frustration pales in comparison to that of his customers, many of whom have been sleeping in airports for the last several days, and most of whom are experiencing more severe delays than passengers flying on virtually any other airline. His frustration is also shared by me and others who don’t like it when corporate leaders–especially those who happily gulped down a $5 billion taxpayer-funded bailout–fail so badly to take responsibility for their mistakes. 

The truth is, while weather doubtlessly played a role, United’s especially poor performance is a consequence of its own actions. Here’s why.

United is still struggling while other airlines have recovered

As noted by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in a pointed tweet, flight cancellations are now roughly in line with historical averages, aside from United flights.

This data seems to contradict Kirby’s claim that the FAA’s failure to properly manage traffic caused United’s poor performance. If that were true, you’d expect FAA problems to be felt evenly across the industry. Other airlines should also have had their operations disrupted at similar rates and should be experiencing the same lag in recovery. That United is the only one struggling to regain its footing points to internal inefficiencies rather than systemic issues with the FAA’s traffic management.

United performed much worse than other airlines operating from the same regions

If inclement weather were the only factor to blame, you’d likely see airlines serving the same storm-stricken airports with similarly poor performance. That’s not the case: United was responsible for the same number of cancellations last week as every other US airline combined.

United employees are blaming United

Across the country, United employees have explicitly called out poor management as the chief cause of delays, including two major unions representing United pilots and flight attendants. Captain Garth Thompson, head of the Air Line Pilots Association Unit at United, said the following:

“United’s travel disruptions this week stem from one source; company senior management’s inadequate planning an insufficient investment in the airline infrastructure.”

One Redditor recounts the following conversation with a United baggage claim attendant at Austin Bergstrom:

She said thanks, and suggested that a lot of United’s scheduling team is new hires. She said this whole fiasco probably started with bad weather yes, but at this point it’s obviously a clusterf*** internally, with little to no communication from headquarters.

Another user posted the following account from Bozeman Yellowstone Airport:

We were first delayed three hours bc of the plane arriving late, but then had to wait three more hours even with the crew all ready to go – the only hold up was that the flight attendants were on the phone with scheduling for hours to get reassigned to our flight after they volunteered to take it (as their other flight had been canceled).


Scott Kirby’s inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility for United’s performance this past week is maddening, and United’s customers deserve better. Just as importantly, United’s frontline employees, now forced to deal with the fallout and assuage angry customers, deserve better from a CEO who made over $10 million last year, substantially more than every other airline CEO in the country.

Captain Garth Thompson put it best:

“It’s time for United leadership to change their thinking and invest in its labor, staff support, and facilities with updated contracts instead of ensuring our CEO has the highest salary,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *