United Airlines has had an absolutely terrible week financially, with thousands of flights canceled and hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded during one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. One of the big questions many people have asked is “why?”. Why did United Airlines have such a bad meltdown when other airlines didn’t?
Now, a memo has been sent to United employees outlining what went wrong and how United intends to prevent this issue in the future. I’d like to post a copy of the note first and then share my views.
Scott Kirby’s memo to employees on the meltdown
Below is a memo signed by CEO Scott Kirby sent to United employees.
This has been one of the most operationally difficult weeks I have ever had in my career.
Airlines can plan for hurricanes, sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms, but United Airlines has never experienced an extended and limited operating environment like we saw in Newark last week. .
But through it all, you guys have remained truly amazing beings. Many of you are brave enough to take care of each other and your customers under incredibly difficult circumstances with just a few hours of sleep. I often say that my goal is to build an airline that you can be proud of, and I’m especially proud of you this week.
Although the weather around the system was blessed, the worst weather was truly unprecedented in EWR. We have dealt with severe restrictions on air operations that will continue from Saturday to Tuesday.
• EWR has 40 scheduled departures per hour.
• Limited to less than 20 departures per hour over a 4-hour period on 25 June.
• On 26 June, the number of departures was limited to less than 20 departures per hour for nine hours.
• On June 27, we limited departures to less than 20 departures per hour over a 6-hour period.
This means that the total number of aircraft that can depart the EWR has decreased by 60-75% in an average of 6-8 hours each day. Airlines, including United, weren’t designed to operate normally while severely limiting capacity at their largest hubs for four straight days.
Earlier this week, I shared my thoughts on the FAA’s need for more personnel. Since then, I have personally had incredibly thoughtful and constructive conversations with the FAA and Secretary Buttigieg. The current FAA leadership team has taken on these challenges, and to their credit, thousands of controllers are short, especially in the New York/New Jersey airspace. I am making it public. Managing all New York and EWR airports, the N90 is also probably the most technically challenging job in the global aviation industry, so it also means that experience makes a difference.
But here’s how those staffing issues and how a few days of thunderstorms really affected United.
A west-to-east moving thunderstorm typically hits the EWR first as it passes through the New York City area, ending the two departure modifications that aircraft use to move west from the EWR. Before the pandemic, some of our flights still had the opportunity to depart north and fly west through Canadian airspace to reach their destination. True, in such cases the flight was long and delayed, but there was no need to cancel. But now, Canada’s air traffic control is also short-staffed and is closing those routes. So now the number of departures per hour is often reduced to single digits (often 0). And that’s basically what happened between June 24th and 27th. The reality is that EWR cannot function in thunderstorm conditions unless there is a departure route to the west. This is one of the biggest accomplishments of the FAA’s commitment to the United States and Canada.
And after the storm ended, it took a few more days to recover. Due to the level of turmoil we experienced, aircraft and crews were scattered and displaced across the country. But you can definitely learn things to improve in the future to help you recover faster.
Here are five that immediately come to mind:
1. Further improvements in crew technology. Our crew system is one of the best in the world, but it wasn’t designed simply for what we went through last week. It has a very long hold time and already has a lot of online features, but still too much manual work. This is unacceptable. Our future goal is to eliminate the need to call a crew member to schedule a flight and allow them to self-serve and do everything online via an app that is as good as a customer-facing app. We are working to make it a top priority.
2. Our partnership with the FAA is important. As I said earlier, the FAA is working on this, and in the short term, things like hiring more senior management over the weekend and him working with NATCA to cover vacation and sick calls are important. are taking steps. Additionally, we have both significantly enhanced day-to-day communications between the FAA and United, with an emphasis on EWR.
3. Support the FAA’s efforts to find long-term solutions. First and foremost, it advocates passage of a bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill that will ensure the FAA is properly staffed, invest in infrastructure and technology modernization, and increase investment certainty so the FAA can deliver on long-term projects. means to continue We also support the FAA’s efforts to move EWR ATC from N90 to PHI, which we and the FAA believe will help operate all three of his large airports in the New York area.
4. Departures and arrivals to the EWR must be balanced. When the departure route is closed (due to a thunderstorm to the west), arriving aircraft continue to land and become stranded in long lines and fill taxiways as aircraft cannot depart to make room. If only one of his planes in that line were waiting to depart, all the planes behind it would be stranded, and the entire line of Congas would be trapped. The traditional way the FAA manages capacity constraints is arrival rates. This is fine, as most airports have multiple taxiways, gates and other places to park aircraft, but especially he agreed to work on balancing arrivals and departures on the EWR. He gave me
5. EWR is the best international gateway anywhere in the country. But the airport is also one of the most difficult to operate in the country. The Port Authority is working with us to increase gates (essential to avoid taxiway congestion), but to have more spare gates and buffers, especially during thunderstorm season. The schedule should be further modified or shortened. .
My general lesson is that while we try to control the things that are within our control, we try to control the things that are outside of our control so that we can recover more quickly. It just means you need to plan better.
End this note on the top by saying thank you and proud of you. It’s been a very difficult week in unprecedented circumstances, but you guys have stood up and done everything in your power to get us through.
We are still monitoring some storms, but this morning our operations are back on track.
Thank you again for your dedication to your resilience, professionalism and customer care during a particularly difficult time.
My take on United’s explanation of operational issues
First of all, I’ve felt less respect for Scott Kirby this week. Because when he escaped Newark on a private jet to get to his vacation home, he couldn’t reliably reach his destination on United Airlines. My problem isn’t that he takes a private jet or works remotely. Rather my problem is optics.
After all, CEOs cannot solve all problems personally. Hire the right people and they should help you find the solution. The problem is, as CEO, he should set the tone for his employees. While United Airlines employees are working overtime, sleeping on cots, and on hold for hours on crew scheduling, the CEO is rich, so privately taking his jet is all of this. You can see that it avoids the problem of This is something many employees will never forget, and it’s not good for the airline.
That aside, I have to give United a lot of credit for this explanation. The reason I said “United” and not “Kirby” is because the airline clearly has some very smart communicators (including a former White House press secretary) behind this scheme, and Kirby Because I don’t know if it deserves so much credit here.
But let’s be honest, this description is thorough and accurate (well, other than calling Newark the best international gateway in the country?), and to minimize the chances of something like this happening. It also provides a quick explanation of what the airline will do in the future. Basically, Meltdown boils down to a few things.
- Newark Airport is a very difficult airport to operate during bad weather, especially during peak summer months, when airline operations are at their peak and especially when air traffic controllers are in short supply.The only downside United has with the first issue is how big the airline does at the airport.
- As we saw in the Southwest Airlines meltdown while on vacation, the crew’s scheduling software needs an upgrade. The problem is that 99.99% of the time it works as expected, so airlines struggle to justify the investment, but when things go wrong, they really go wrong.
I think it’s worth noting that there is no apology to the employees at all, only repeated mentions of how Kirby is “proud” of them. I think this is intentional, but it seems appropriate for employees to admit that they (at least) have failed the crew scheduling system.
This note from Kirby contrasts sharply with the way Southwest State communicates during the meltdown. In a memo to United Airlines employees, acknowledging a number of key points while the airline is still recovering, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said: A month after the airline meltdown occurred, it couldn’t even admit its cause.
A memo signed by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby was sent to airline employees to explain what caused airline meltdowns and what could be done to prevent something like this in the future. outlined. Kirby’s behavior during the meltdown is questionable, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t write this note, but I’m still very impressed with this explanation.
It’s thorough, accurate, and explains what’s going to change. And best of all, this is communicated immediately after the problem occurs.
What are your thoughts on Kirby’s memo to his employees?
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