April 17, 2024

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The impressive breakdown note that United Airlines issued to employees

The impressive breakdown note that United Airlines issued to employees

United Airlines had a very bad week operationally, with the airline canceling thousands of flights, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. One big question many people ask is, “Why?” Why did United suffer such a bad crash when other airlines did not?

Well, a memo has been sent to United employees, outlining what went wrong, and how United plans to prevent this from happening in the future. Let me start by posting a copy of the note, and then I’ll share what I do.

Scott Kirby’s note to staff about the breakdown

This is the memo sent to United employees, signed by CEO Scott Kirby:

a team:

This has been one of the most operationally challenging weeks I’ve had in my entire career.

Airlines can plan for things like hurricanes, sub-zero temperatures, and blizzards, but United has never experienced an extended, limited operating environment like the one we saw last week in Newark.

But through it all, you’re still truly amazing – so many of you work so few hours of sleep under incredibly difficult circumstances to heroically take care of each other and our clients. While I often say my goal is to create an airline that you can be proud of, this week in particular I am very proud.

so what happened?

While there was weather around the system, the unprecedented severe weather really focused on the EWR. We dealt with severe restrictions on flight operations starting Saturday and continuing through Tuesday.

• EWR has 40 scheduled departures per hour;
• On June 25th, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for four hours.
• On June 26, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for nine hours.
• On June 27, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for six hours

This means that the total number of aircraft that can leave the EWR has decreased between 60-75% by an average of 6 to 8 hours each day. Airlines, including United, are simply not designed to have their largest hub severely limited capacity for four consecutive days and still operate successfully.

I shared my thoughts earlier this week on the FAA’s need for personnel. Since then, I’ve personally had incredibly thoughtful and constructive conversations with the FAA and Secretary Buttigieg. The current FAA command team has inherited these challenges, in no small part because they declared thousands of controllers short — and New York/NJ airspace, in particular, is understaffed. N90, which operates all of New York’s airports and EWR, is also probably the most technically challenging job anywhere in the world in aviation, which means experience makes a difference, too.

But here’s how those staffing issues, combined with days of rolling thunderstorms, really affected United:

Thunderstorms that move from west to east usually hit the EWR first as they flow through the New York City area, and this closes the two departure repairs that planes use to travel west out of the EWR. Pre-pandemic, when that happened, some of our flights still had a chance to leave for the North and then fly west over Canadian airspace to get where they needed to be. Sure, in those cases the flights were longer, and we got delayed, but we didn’t have to cancel. But today, Canadian air traffic control is also understaffed, so they’ve closed those routes. So now, we’re often reduced to one (and often zero) departures per hour. And that basically happened between the 24th and the 27th of June. The reality is that the EWR simply cannot operate under thunderstorm conditions unless there are departure routes to the West and this is one of the biggest points that the FAA is working hard on with us and Canada.

And after the storms were over, it took us a few more days to recover. The level of disruption we experienced left our aircraft and crews scattered across the country and out of position. However, there are definitely things we can learn to do better in the future to recover faster.

Here are five that immediately come to mind:

1. More improvements to our crew technology. Our crew systems are among the best in the world, but they are simply not designed for what we went through last week. We had very long waiting times, and while we already have a lot of potential online, we still have a lot of manual labor – that’s not acceptable. Our goal for the future is that you won’t need to call crew scheduling and can self-service and do everything online with an app as good as our customer-facing app. We are committed to making this a top priority.

2. Partnership with the FAA is critical. As I said, the FAA is involved in this, and they’ve taken important steps in the short term like bringing in more senior managers on weekends and working with NATCA to cover any vacation/sick calls. In addition, we have greatly increased day-to-day communications between FAA and the United States, with an emphasis on EWR.

3. Support the FAA’s efforts to find long-term solutions. First and foremost, that means continuing to advocate for passage of a bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill, which gives them the right personnel, invests in infrastructure and technology upgrades, and gives the FAA more certainty of investment so they can get things done. Long term projects. We are also supporting the FAA’s initiative to move the EWR ATC from N90 to PHI which we and FAA management believe will help with operations at all three large New York area airports.

4. We need to balance the departures and arrivals in the EWR. When the departure routes are closed (due to thunderstorms to the west), incoming planes continue to land and because the planes cannot leave to make room for themselves, they fill up the taxiways as they are stuck in a long line. If there is only one plane in that line waiting to depart, all planes behind it are stuck and thus, the entire conga line is trapped. The FAA’s traditional way of managing capacity constraints is access rates. In most airports this is fine as there are many taxi lanes, gates and other places to park aircraft, but they agreed with us to work on balancing arrivals and departures at EWR, in particular.

5. EWR is the best international portal found anywhere in the country. But it is also the most operationally challenging airport in the country. The Port Authority is working with us to get more gates (necessary to avoid suffocation on taxi lanes), but we will have to change/reduce our schedule to give ourselves more backup gates and buffers – especially during thunderstorm season.

My takeaway is as we work to control the things that are within our control, we must also do a better job of planning against the things that are outside of our control so that we can recover more quickly.

I will end on this note where I started which is to say thank you and I am so proud of you. It was a very difficult week of unprecedented conditions, but you stayed your ground and did everything you could to get through it.

We are still watching for several storms, but our operation is back on track this morning.

Thank you again for your steadfastness, professionalism and commitment to looking after our customers, especially when times are tough.


United’s operation melted down at Newark Airport

My take on United’s explanation of operational issues

Let me start by saying I lost a lot of respect for Scott Kirby this week, when he fled Newark on a private jet to go to his vacation home, because he couldn’t reliably get there at United. My problem is not with him traveling on a private jet, or even telecommuting. Rather, my problem is the optics.

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In the end, the CEO can’t fix every problem personally, and if he hires the right people, those people should be able to help find solutions. The problem is that, as CEO, he should be the one who sets the tone for the employees. United employees work overtime, sleep in cribs, and spend hours on hold with crew scheduling, all while you find out your CEO avoids all of these troubles by taking a private jet, because he’s rich. This is something many employees won’t forget, and it’s not good for the airline.

With that out of the way, I have to give United a lot of credit for this interpretation. I say “United” instead of “Kirby” because the airline has some savvy communications people (including the former White House press secretary) who are clearly behind that, and I’m not sure Kirby deserves all the credit here.

But honestly, this explanation is comprehensive and accurate (well, except to call Newark the best international gateway in the country?), and also immediately explains what the airline will do in the future to reduce the odds of something like this happening. The breakdown basically boils down to a few things:

  • Newark is a very difficult airport to work in when there is weather, especially in the height of summer, when airlines are pushed to their limits, and especially with a shortage of air traffic controllers; The only mistake United made regarding the initial issue was the scale of the carrier’s operations at the airport
  • As we saw with Southwest’s collapse over the holidays, the crew scheduling software needs an upgrade; The thing is, 99.99% of the time it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, so airlines have a hard time justifying the investment, but when things go wrong, they really do go wrong.
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I think it’s noteworthy that there was no apology to the staff whatsoever, just repeated mentions of how “proud” Kirby was of the staff. I imagine this is intentional, although it would seem that acknowledging personnel failures due to the crew scheduling system (at a minimum) would be appropriate.

This observation from Kirby stands in stark contrast to how Southwest communicated during the crash. The memo to United employees acknowledges many important points while the airline is still recovering, while Southwest CEO Bob Jordan couldn’t even acknowledge why the company collapsed a month after it happened.

This is in complete contrast to how the Southwest communicates


A memo signed by Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, was sent to employees at the airline, explaining why the company had collapsed, and what would be done to prevent something like this from happening in the future. Even though I’m having issues with how Kirby acted during the crash, and while I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Kirby who wrote this note, I’m still very impressed with the explanation.

It is comprehensive, accurate, and explains what will change. Best of all, this is reported shortly after problems occur.

What do you think of Kirby’s remark to the staff?