Skift Take

The pandemic has forced airline CEOs to be more accessible. Coming off the worst year in aviation's modern history, being front and center with workers and customers takes on a new urgency for CEOs looking to resuscitate business.

Soon after the outbreak of Covid-19, Korean Air CEO Walter Cho boarded a repatriation flight in South Korea bound for Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic, to support the cabin crew on the roundtrip flight.   

This is just one example of how global airline CEOs have been increasing their visibility and becoming more accessible to boost confidence in travel as the industry is poised for travel’s recovery.  

Six months later when Korean Air launched its “Care First” program, Cho and a team of executives joined employees for training on cabin disinfecting methods and safety guidelines before boarding an aircraft in Seoul to manually clean the plane themselves, an airline spokesperson said.

Korean Air CEO cleaning and disinfecting a plane.

Korean Air CEO Walter Cho cleans and disinfects a tray table during the global pandemic to encourage the public to fly.  Photo courtesy of Korean Air

“Executives and employees have come together to assure customers of our dedication to delivering an even safer inflight experience,” said Cho.   

Thousands of miles away, Gary Kelly, Southwest’s soon-to-be-retired CEO, has been keeping a hectic schedule of increased personal appearances and communicating with his employees and the public, a Southwest spokesperson said.

Since the onset of the pandemic when “Ask Gary” videos first appeared twice a week internally, Kelly has recorded 73 of the informational videos, slowing the pace to once a week around episode 35. And transitioning to monthly in May as things stabilized from a policy and procedure standpoint, resulting in fewer changes to the business.

When “Ask Gary” recordings contain things of interest to the general public, videos are posted to the airline’s website and shared to Kelly’s LinkedIn and Twitter handles.

Down the road in Dallas at American, CEO Doug Parker and the airline’s leadership team have been meeting regularly with team members, union partners, and external stakeholders, an American spokesperson said.

In addition to personal appearances at a variety of events including IBM’s Think annual conference and Washington Post Live, United’s CEO Scott Kirby has been using his social media platforms to communicate and rebuild trust with customers and employees throughout the pandemic, a United spokesperson said.

And in Atlanta, media appearances have more than tripled since 2019 for Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO.

Named the airline’s CEO in 2019, Cho has been primarily focusing throughout the pandemic on encouraging his employees, and particularly those on the front lines, a Korean Air spokesperson said.

Korean Air CEO joins in disinfecting aircraft cabin.

Korean Air CEO Walter Cho joins employees in cleaning and disinfecting an aircraft cabin during the global pandemic. Photo courtesy of Korean Air

Cho maintains open communications with Korean Air employees through appearances and regular internal memos to boost confidence among the staff during this difficult period, she added.   

Kirby’s Instagram posts, a mixture of United updates and his everyday life with his family, give his thousands of followers a glimpse into his personal life. In one Instagram post, Kirby talks about using the skills he gained as an Air Force cadet to guide him in leading the airline, while in another he talks about the importance of sustainability as an airline CEO and dad while holding his infant daughter.

“When I stepped into the CEO role early in the pandemic, it was important for me to use a variety of internal and external platforms to keep our employees and customers informed of the decisions we were making to help keep them safe and how we were positioning United to bounce back as soon as demand picked up,” Kirby said in a statement.

From talking about removing change fees to influencing how diverse United will become and everything in between, Kirby said every virtual and in-person event has been purposeful.

To date, Bastian has participated in 130 media interviews since 2020, providing business updates to customers and employees alike.

Parker has appeared  virtually at industry events and conferences, often speaking weekly about the country’s response to the crisis and how American is preparing for the recovery, an American spokesperson said.

In addition to posting more on his social media channels, Kelly’s availability to the media has also increased with appearances at a Skift conference, in Texas Monthly, on Axios on HBO and Face the Nation, and many more.


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Tags: airlines, american, ceos, coronavirus recovery, delta, korean air, southwest airlines, united airlines

Photo credit: Southwest CEO Gary Kelly hobknobbing on a recent flight. Stephen M. Keller / Southwest

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