No Little Plans for United and Archer
A conversation with Oscar Munoz, former United Airlines CEO
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Like many who call Chicago home, Oscar Munoz knows these words by heart: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
The quote is attributed to Daniel Burnham, who in 1909 re-imagined one of America’s great cities. Some of his architectural plans were realized during his lifetime—some after his death—and today Chicago is still studied as a marvel of city planning.
Oscar cites Burnham in his book Turnaround Time, released last month. “No little plans” has come to define Oscar’s legacy: he took the reigns of United at its lowest point, then spent the next five years orchestrating the company’s turnaround (yes, that’s half the meaning of the book title), becoming a Chicagoan in the process. He led the company through its period of greatest growth, in an era of fierce competition from Delta and American, as well as low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue.
Coming into my sit-down with Oscar, I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. I only knew a few things about his time as CEO, and one of them was the Dr. Dao incident, when airport law enforcement forcibly removed a United passenger from a flight. You may recall the video of Dr. Dao being dragged down the airplane’s narrow aisle, face bloodied, screaming.
United botched its initial response to the episode, making a bad situation worse. United’s share price took a hit. Things looked bleak for Oscar. In a second attempt at handling the situation, he went on national television. During his primetime interview, Oscar took more blame than we usually see from the C-suite of a Fortune 100 company. When ABC’s correspondent asked him, “What did you think when you watched that video?” he ignored conventional PR wisdom, responding, “It’s not so much what I thought, it’s what I felt. The word ‘shame’ comes to mind. I want to apologize to Dr. Dao, to his family and the passengers on that flight.”
Did he say “shame?” Maybe Oscar’s just a savvy communicator, but he got me. My skepticism turned into admiration; this and many other stories demonstrate Oscar’s unusually good sense for leading in a crisis. On our call, he emphasized that “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
After a thousand similar challenges (as well as many successes), Oscar has now moved out of the United CEO office and into retirement, although given his current workload, that’s not how I would describe it. In his memoir, he calls it moving from a “what’s wrong?” era to a “what’s next.”
What’s next for Oscar is something I, along with readers of this blog, care deeply about. During his final years at United, Oscar made investments in Archer Aviation and Boom Supersonic, two companies that will each play a major role in the future of mobility.
Oscar sits on the board of Archer, a company we follow closely at Airframe. He shared an interesting perspective on the eVTOL company, which I captured in a summarized transcript below.
Turnaround Time is a moving and fascinating book, but it’s missing one thing. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” is only half the quote. It’s followed by the architect’s prediction that our children and grandchildren “are going to do things that would stagger us.”
As we stand on the precipice of a revolution in air mobility, I think Burnham would be impressed, maybe even staggered.
Read below for Oscar’s thoughts on Archer Aviation.
What do you think will be the hardest thing for Archer to overcome in order to get to market?
Regulatory approval. Archer’s design differentiates it from all the other players. There are a lot of players, and not all players are created equal. I did a lot of work before United made the decision on all of this; a lot of personal engagement and investment. We are building an aircraft to fly commercially now, not 10 years from now. We're not building an autonomous vehicle; it's a manned aircraft that can get regulatory approval. It's going to be able to carry a payload that makes economic sense, flying in cities safely and doing it in a sustainable way.
The key will be for the FAA to work alongside us at Archer. The team would rather know today whether something's going to work for the FAA or not. Keep in mind that the FAA is a regulatory agency, and eVTOLs are brand new to everyone. There will be iterations and challenges, but the premise is to do that side-by-side to make it a more efficient process. There's still a lot of work to do, but we have the right team in place.
There are a lot of players, and not all players are created equal. I did a lot of work before United made the decision on all of this; a lot of personal engagement and investment.
Why do you trust Adam as CEO of Archer?
Adam is a good leader. He listens and he understands humans. He has a balance of IQ and EQ. He’s also a tenacious deal-maker. He understands finance and markets, and over the course of time he has made the right decisions on people.
For me, the arbiter of how well a leader is doing is the ability to attract the right level of high talent—people who could do other things with their careers, but are choosing to come to Archer because they feel that Archer is compelling, thoughtful, and structured. They can see how they can benefit there. Adam and his team do a wonderful job of recruiting this level of talent and getting them really excited about Archer’s mission. Any of them could go to Boeing and Tesla, but we get a lot of them at Archer because they feel the excitement of building something new.
That's always a really good sign that someone is a good leader: that they can bring in that kind of talent.
There are a lot of customer service touch points in an airline experience — places where things can go wrong. There will likely be even more of those touch points in a world of advanced air mobility: higher volume, shorter routes, more passengers, and more landing sites. Does that worry you?
Of course, but not so much the noise, because these aircraft are stealth—they really are. And visually, the aircraft and vertiports are going to be stunning. So I worry more about people’s perception that we’re going to suddenly have a bunch of flying cars everywhere. We’re not going to make tens of thousands of these in the early days—we're going to have enough of these aircraft on different routes to serve a lot of passengers, but we’re going to increase volume slowly. And all of the technology is in place to make sure these aircraft can fly safely and serve a lot of people.
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