United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is fond of saying, “It’s just math.”
Whether the outspoken airline boss is weighing in on climate change, issuing vaccine mandates, moving to diversify the cockpit or eliminating flight-change fees, his decisions are rooted in the irrefutable logic of numbers.
His views on hot-button issues may seem surprising, coming from an aviation lifer who grew up in Texas and still lives in Dallas. Yet those who know him say the 54-year-old Air Force Academy graduate, who was banned from casinos for card counting, has always been willing to follow the numbers, even when they stray from conventional wisdom.
“Scott hasn’t changed,” says Holly Hegeman, publisher of Dallas-based Plane Business Banter, who has known Kirby for more than 20 years, back to his days at America West. “That’s his personality. He’s always been direct.”
What’s different now is Kirby has the world’s attention as CEO of a global airline. His words and actions—which affect customers, shareholders and employees—are playing out against the backdrop of a pandemic that has caused the worst downturn in aviation history. They’re also the clearest signal yet that nearly 18 months into Kirby’s tenure as CEO, United is very much his airline.
Kirby is a self-proclaimed nerd who made his mark in the industry over the past 25 years as a savvy network planner who helped carriers such as America West, US Airways and American Airlines figure out where and when to fly to make the most money. He was known as a smart, sometimes brash executive who wasn’t afraid to defend his ideas.
As CEO of United, he was an early and unapologetic advocate of mandatory vaccines for employees, although it took more than six months before he could fully implement that policy. It involved delicate negotiations with labor, and United has been sued by some employees. But faced with losing their jobs, all but about 300 of United’s 67,000 employees got shots or requested religious or medical exemptions. Other airline bosses who initially balked at vaccine mandates have since followed Kirby’s lead.
Asked why he did it, Kirby pointed to the data. “The reality is once you’ve been vaccinated, even if you’ve been exposed, the chances that you’re going to get a severe hospitalization or die is very low,” Kirby said during a Sept. 27 appearance at the Atlantic Festival. “I view my highest obligation to protect all of our employees.”
Kirby’s action drew attention at the highest levels. President Joe Biden’s visit to Chicago earlier this week included a meeting with Kirby.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale School of Management, says Kirby “championed science over superstition and proved that American workers want to do the right thing when they are told the truth. United was one of 10 companies to step out front on this matter, and there are now over 200 major employers.”
His stand on climate change was also driven by the numbers. United has been working on ways to reduce pollution and reliance on traditional jet fuel for more than a decade. Last December, Kirby stepped out ahead of the industry’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050 by several months. He underscored the commitment with a multimillion-dollar investment in a startup that’s developing technology to capture and trap carbon emissions underground and publicly rejected the idea of purchasing pollution credits through projects such as planting or preserving trees.
“Mankind emits 4,000 times as much carbon today as we did in the preindustrial era,” Kirby, a history buff who quotes Churchill biographies on earnings calls, later said on a Washington Post podcast. “There is not room on the planet to plant 4,000 times as many trees, and as long as every corporation gets there in the convenient, easy way and checks the box on carbon offsets, the planet is never going to solve this problem.”
When the airline announced that half the 500 students coming through United’s pilot-training school each year would be women or people of color, Kirby explained the rationale to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., with the data. “Today 81% of our pilots are white men. Only 19% of our pilots are people of color or women.”
That’s not to say emotion doesn’t figure into his decisions. Kirby has said that writing letters to families of United employees who had died from COVID-19 helped motivate him to require vaccines.
CEOs increasingly are wading into politically charged issues—such as climate change, immigration, voting rights and racial equality—that would have been off-limits before, says M.K. Chin, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“CEOs of U.S. public companies are speaking out way more than 10 years ago,” says Chin, who has researched the topic. “They feel more comfortable or sometimes feel more pressure to take a stance on issues that are controversial.”
United braved backlash on the voting rights issue when it criticized controversial new election laws proposed in Georgia and Texas. The comments gave “air cover” to rivals Delta and American, which had taken flak for speaking out, says Sonnenfeld.
It’s a balancing act, as CEOs try to address the often-competing interests of customers, employees and investors.
“There are downsides to talking publicly on these issues,” Chin says. “Baby boomers and Generation X respond negatively. Millennials want to see CEOs take a stand.”
United was criticized by some on social media over its diversity and mask initiatives, but the company has said that reaction from employees and customers for policies has been more positive than negative.
“Effective Leadership is hard. If you attempt to lead by populism, you’re bound to fail,” says Todd Insler, who leads the Air Line Pilots Association union at United and sits on the company’s board. “Scott is aggressive. So am I. We don’t always agree. There have been many difficult decisions over the past few years, and United is better positioned because of them.”
Kirby also has shown a willingness to go his own way on business decisions. For example, he made no friends in the industry when United eliminated fees to customers who change flights, a source of significant revenue for airlines. Delta and American soon followed. Kirby has said it’s a change he had wanted to make for 20 years, but it’s the kind of “billion-dollar decision” that only the CEO gets to make.