Even as an aviation reporter, it’s not every day I get to sit down for an extended one-on-one interview with the former CEO of one of the major U.S. airlines. So, when C-SPAN offered me the chance to speak to Oscar Munoz about his new book “Turnaround Time” for the network’s “After Words” program, I was more than happy to accept.

We certainly had plenty to talk about against the backdrop of ongoing (though improving) staffing issues and high-profile information technology meltdowns, among other post-pandemic aviation issues. It even allowed me to ask a question I’ve been dying to ask an airline executive for my entire career.

Here are some consumer-focused highlights from our conversation. If you want to see the full interview, check it out on C-SPAN.

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These excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

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Question: You talk about hearing passengers complain that they have a negative view of air travel. Why do you think people generally view air travel negatively, and how can that be addressed?

Answer: Of course, we fly aircraft, and we get people from Point A to Point B, but it’s deeper than that, right? It’s more about understanding that each single person in each single seat is traveling for something that’s really important to them. The friendly skies and our tagline is important that when you fly, you feel that. The point is to make sure that your employees are really engaged in the process of taking care of all the services that we provide.

The average traveler probably has a perception of the CEO of an airline as possibly being a little out of touch. I’ve always wanted to ask an airline CEO this: Did you fly economy when you (did your listening tour around United’s network at the start of your tenure)?

It depends on where you’re going. We, at the time, still had a lot of these small, 50-seater aircraft, which do not have a first class. And yes, a lot of the time, especially late or early in the morning, I would fly up front, and so it was a combination of those things. 

I would sit, mostly in an aisle seat, so I could get up and talk to the flight attendants …and talk to customers, so I could kind of roam around the plane – safely, obviously, when we’re doing that. So it was important for me not only to fly and talk to folks but do it without a large group of people with me. 

One of the ways United sets itself apart from its competitors is its commitment to sustainability. Why do you see sustainability as United’s big issue that it’s positioned to address?

We burn, as an industry worldwide, close to a hundred billion gallons of jet fuel. Should we not have a level of responsibility and awareness that the impact of that on this planet is not insignificant? … If indeed you believe this level of carbon emission has an impact, ask yourself: can you do something about it? 

Given the nature of our business and the level of carbon emissions, it’s just a matter of time before something is going to break in our system, so we should begin to plan ahead and think of what the future might be. 

Sustainable aviation fuel is a great example for a couple of reasons. Yes, it’s better for the planet, but the way we began, and I began to really somehow coerce some of our leaders around the world in the airline industry, is the economic benefit. Not talking about social issues or political issues, but the fact that fuel, on the (profit and loss sheet) of an airline, is one of the biggest line items – one or two, besides labor – and more importantly, it’s volatile. 

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Can you talk about how your upbringing and background positioned you to lead the airline when you were there?

People that are not in minority cohorts, it’s often hard for people to understand what it means for a person of your same heritage to see another person of their heritage in a position of authority, of leadership. It is heartwarming; it is tear-jerking, the level of response I would get when I went to a lot of our facilities.

We use a term "orgulloso" in Spanish, which ... I think people are genuinely so warmed that someone like me could be in the role that I had. 

(During that pandemic,) United had a 93% drop in demand. How did the airline, or any airline, survive and recover? 

We had no idea how long this would last, we had no idea what level it would go. So we began to do math. You asked the question: how do you survive? So you do the math: how long can you go before you’re bankrupt? Our great finance team did some work.

We survived by getting a little bit ahead of it…and then we worked hard here in D.C. to get the CARES Act passed. A lot of people still…would term it as a bailout similar to the auto industry. If you look at the facts, the airline industry had never been in a better financial position than early in 2020.

If you want the economy to return, you need to have business and commerce return. In order to have business and commerce you have to have people flying and you can’t do that without an airline, and if we as an airline shut down and furlough all our people, you just don’t bring them back in a week or a month. Pilots need to constantly fly to be certified, so if you send them home you have to spend a lot of time certifying them.

Things (airlines) can do from a financial perspective continue to be restricted, so it was not a handout, and it was not a bailout … but the ability to keep everyone working as demand began to slowly recover, not only did it help the industry, but I think it helped the economy of the United States begin to regain. 

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You talk a lot about different stakeholders: there are the passengers, there are your employees, and there are the shareholders of the company. If you had to pick just one, and I am going to make you pick one, which of those stakeholders takes priority, and why?

The history of the United turnaround was (based on prioritizing) our employees because we could not have done anything we’ve done without their complete support and buy-in. 

Today, if you were to ask me the same question, I think I would answer it the same way: It’s the people that deliver the service. It’s a decentralized workplace. It’s literally an individual. He or she needs to be wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons, for our customers.

My admonition to everybody in the industry is don’t lose your people. United lost its people and look how difficult that was to climb out of that. 

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruising Altitude: Here's what United Airlines' former CEO told me about flying coach

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