Is United Running An Airline Or A Buzz-Seeking Political Campaign?


Give United Airlines credit. If it ever flies the 15-to-50 supersonic aircraft it hyped on Thursday, it will open a new age of flying, help to develop an amazing new product, protect the environment and make a lot of money.

But since when was United primarily engaged in the hype business? It used to be that airline promotional campaigns meant advertising low fares to Florida.

A United campaign last week began with a mysterious tweet. Posted on Wednesday June 2, it said, “Something is happening …6 a.m. CT June 3.” This triggered speculation regarding new aircraft, new destinations and new livery. Perhaps someone somewhere guessed right. It made no difference, really. In campaigns, the goal is to “generate buzz” and “win the news cycle.”

On Thursday, United’s early morning explanatory tweet revealed plans to develop the “Overture” jet with “Boom Supersonic.” It got 7,565 likes. News coverage included top outlets like The New York Times and NBC Nightly News, which had an “exclusive” interview with Boom.

The explanation came at 7 a.m. EDT and NBC News ended at 7 p.m. EDT – a supersonic buzz boom in the news cycle.

The airline business is intensely covered. Its corporate communications capabilities are highly developed and its top brands are among the world’s best known. But in recent months, United has aspired to something more. During a single week in April, United issued three separate statements on social issues: election integrity, diversity and climate change.

In February, United made an announcement similar to the one it made Thursday. It said it had made an undisclosed investment in an undeveloped aircraft – in that case, an electric vertical takeoff and landing air taxi — that could help the environment. United said it and partner Mesa Airlines may acquire up to 200 of these things.

It’s hard to think that, in the end, United will be significantly more carbon neutral than its competitors. Five hours after the United news release on Thursday, Delta responded, announcing that it had launched a program, “Flight to Net Zero.” Delta said it had agreed to acquire sustainable aviation fuel from a partner – Delta’s fifth such agreement.

That said, United CEO Scott Kirby also has a long commitment to carbon neutrality and United policy reflects that. Kirby, 53, has worked in the airline industry since the early 1990s, when he joined American subsidiary Sabre. In an industry staffed largely by people who are in love with it, Kirby is well-known and fits in. Groomed by Munoz, he has obviously stepped into leadership.

Josh Ernst, United senior vice president and chief communications officer, has a different background. His biography on United’s web site forcefully asserts his political background: “His two-decade career in politics has taken him from Capitol Hill to some of the largest states and most competitive races in the country, including four presidential campaigns,” the bio says. Ernst hit the jackpot as press secretary to President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. Then he was a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC before joining United in 2018.  The United site ranks Ernst as the airline’s number three executive.

When an executive joins an airline, I always wonder whether they will stay in the industry when they leave. Some people think turning airplanes quickly is exciting. To others, I imagine, buzz and news cycle domination count for more.

United’s board has long displayed a puzzling inclination to go outside the industry for executives. Since 1990, CEOS have included a former auto guy, a former oil guy and a former railroad guy. Only the railroad guy, Oscar Munoz, won respect in the airline industry.

Before Kirby, United’s most recent venture into hiring an airline industry CEO came up with a guy who antagonized labor unions, failed to improve performance and resigned during a federal investigation into allegations that United traded favors with the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

On Friday, veteran aviation journalist Scott Hamilton posted a blog with the headline: “HOTR: 500 ‘destinations’ for Boom goes bust.’” (HOTR means heard on the ramp.) Hamilton, a friend of mine, noted that the United/Boom press release said the Overture aircraft “can connect more than 500 destinations in half the time.” He perused a list of the world’s top 100 airports, and found that many are inland cities, which could not accommodate supersonic flights, which currently are not generally permitted to fly over land – only over water.

Such skepticism about Overture was widespread in the aviation trade media. In an email, aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, told me, “The trade press seems to know what’s going on, but the general interest press has fallen into a severe gullibility trap.

Aboulafia called the United/Boom news day “a delightful moment in aviation theater. Both sides really have it figured out. They both got tons of free publicity, without any actual commitments or money changing hands.”


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