Mar 14, 2021 - Podcasts
The Week America Changed

United Airlines CEO on losing employees to the coronavirus

Photo illustration of United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby with an image of a plane and various shapes and lines

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby knew he needed to prepare for a global pandemic after watching how quickly the coronavirus spread in Italy — even as he was told he was overreacting.

Why it matters: In an interview Sunday with Axios Re:Cap, Kirby remembers how last March he started writing personal letters to the families of employees who died from the virus and trying "to put myself as much as possible in the shoes of the people" receiving the notes.

What he's saying: "The first time we were told we had lost someone in Newark, I remember it. It was in March, we had a number of employees on ventilators, you know, we had such a big employment base in New Jersey and I asked, you know, if I could get the address for the family and get some cards to send condolences to them," Kirby said in an exclusive interview with Axios.

  • "If you do that, if you feel that, it makes a difference in the decisions you make ... It's been a few weeks since I've had to do it. And I hope and pray that I won't have to do it again."

Flashback: "I first started reading about COVID-19 actually in December of 2019. But when it really hit me that the genie was out of the bottle and this was going to become a global pandemic was at the very beginning of March on the weekend when COVID showed up in Italy," Kirby said.

  • "Nobody realizes it yet, but this is going to be a global pandemic and it is already all around the world," Kirby told employees during a management meeting at the time.

The big picture: The toughest decision Kirby faced was the possibility of furloughing all of his employees, "something I never thought I would have to do," Kirby said. He also thought "there was a good chance" that all domestic air travel would be grounded.

  • "The first month after 9/11, our revenues were down 40% and, by the way, within six months, they were down about 10% and that was the worst crisis in history," Kirby said.
  • After the coronavirus pandemic started, "revenues were down 98.5%. And here we are, a year later, and they're still down 65%."
  • Concerns about the viability of domestic flight grew as COVID-19 cases popped up in air traffic control towers and supply chain facilities, creating a "domino" effect. "The air traffic control system I think ... was very close to the level where we simply weren't going to be able to keep flying."

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Axios is looking back at the week of March 9, 2020 — the week high-profile leaders were forced to make consequential choices that upended our lives and society. Subscribe to Axios Re:Cap here.

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