Q & A with Jeff Smisek

One of the many cool things that Jeanne and I got to experience on the Star MegaDo 4 was a live Q & A session with United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek. On the 99th floor of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears) no less!

The session came at the end of several days of impressive United hosting. We were on the new 787 Dreamliner, had a BBQ in a Houston United Hanger, spent a day learning how the behind the scenes operations happened, and got to grill their various departments about problem areas.

The presentation started with a hilarious, Megado centric film, before Smisek appeared in person to answer questions. I was immediately struck by his candor and acknowledgement of the difficulties they’ve faced this year.

“This summer we did not run a good operation. You may have noticed.”

I also appreciated getting insight on some things, even if I didn’t always like the answers ( such as the decaf coffee). Here are few of the highlights:

When will United have Wi-fi?
“United is late to the wifi party” but they are working on it and are holding off so they can deliver a stronger wireless capability than we’re currently seeing on other carriers. Also of interest, no 787 is fitted for wi-fi right now since that wasn’t widespread when Boeing first began designing it. As soon as designs are approved, they’ll retro-fit all the 787’s as well as the new planes under construction.

Why is the decaf coffee instant?
To my chagrin, apparently only a few people will want decaf on any given flight. It’s not feasible or cost effective to brew entire pots for one or none.

Are you worried about an American-US Airways Merger?
A theme that had come up in his earlier responses was the benefits that consolidation can offer the fractured airline industry, allowing more attention to be paid to things like upgrading aircraft and operations. Smisek apparently feels that it if the American Airlines US Airways merger happens, it can only be a good thing for everyone. Although he did let out an endearing evil chuckle and a “I’d like to see that” in reference to the painful challenges (which he well knows) that go along with a merger.

Why would United Airlines sell cheap buy-ups to general consumers rather than upgrade their elites?
I really appreciated his response on this all-important question. He recognizes the need for balance in making sure elites do get upgraded, but that it’s good for us when United is profitable. We should (and do) want them to make money, and even the small funds raised by selling day-of upgrades can make a difference.

The self-deprecation and realistic perspective of some head folks at United have increased my respect for the company and the challenges they face. Perhaps I enought to give me an excuse to go for 1K again next year! :)

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Heels First is the travels and tribulations of two twenty-something frequent fliers jumping into the world of travel. Join Keri and Jeanne as they tackle mileage runs, elite status, and of course–the perfect travel accessories.

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