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When United hired president Scott Kirby in 2016, the move came within a month of him being asked to leave the same post at rival American Airlines. In recent weeks, industry rumors have swirled that American had changed its mind. Might American woo Kirby back, possibly as a replacement for longtime CEO Doug Parker?
Kirby aimed to quash the rumors with comments he made Thursday at the ARC (Airlines Reporting Corporation) conference in Leesburg, Virginia. Kirby said he intends to stay at United, where he reports directly to CEO Oscar Munoz and oversees operations, marketing, revenue management, and network planning.
“I made a commitment to Oscar,” Kirby said. “Oscar was big enough to take a chance on me to bring me to United, and Oscar and United Airlines is the place where I’m going to end my career.”
Kirby made the comments during an interview with Holly Hegeman, publisher of industry newsletter PlaneBusiness Banter. Hegeman had helped to fuel some rumors with a recent article in which she said it was “a given” that the industry would soon see “a major shakeup in the management team at American.”
Kirby wouldn’t comment on the rumors and stuck instead to the topic of his career trajectory. “I believe in the importance of loyalty, and that was certainly drilled into me during my service in the Air Force Academy,” Kirby said.
In 2016, Kirby had what he said was the biggest surprise of his career. In late spring, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker had said he was planning to retire and that he wanted Kirby to replace him. Three months passed, and Parker walked into his office and read off a piece of paper that Kirby needed to transition out of American, Kirby recounted.
In a wide-ranging and reflective conversation, Kirby recounted other memorable moments in his career.
Kirby entered the airline industry around age 27 by going to work for America West Airlines in 1995, where he helped run the schedule on the network and eventually became executive vice president of sales and marketing.
During his time at the Tempe, Arizona-based carrier, Kirby made monthly visits to Las Vegas.
“I counted cards back then, and I’ve been barred more than 150 times at casinos all over the world,” Kirby said.
Talking operations, Kirby touted United’s plan to strengthen its alliances with other carriers. By early 2020, United will have the most airline partners of any carrier in the world with the full ability to assign seats on the partner carrier, he said. But he also said United would sometimes seek integration by taking ownership stakes in carriers rather than always pursue alliances.
Kirby defended United’s on-time performance rating, which critics say could be better relative to its rivals. Kirby touted a process called ConnectionSaver that the airline launched in July to coordinate connecting flights. Software prompts the carrier’s teams to hold a connection for late arrivals by making a variety of calculations of relevant factors.