United Airlines CEO on Maui: Terminal Upgrades and Infrastructure Challenges
By Wendy Osher
United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz visited with Maui employees on Wednesday, as part of a Hawaiʻi visit that includes stops at major airports across the state.
Maui Now’s Wendy Osher caught up with Munoz during his visit to Kahului Airport where he discussed terminal upgrades, infrastructure challenges, industry competition in the Hawaiʻi market and the impacts of decisions surrounding the Boeing 737 Max on future operations.
“I’m on the ninth of 13 airports that we’re visiting around the world. I started in Korea a few days ago and I’ve been through Japan, Honolulu, and we’ll hit some of the outer islands here in the next few days,” said Munoz, who is headed to Kauaʻi next.
He’s addressing a multitude of issues including investments the airline has made, and his efforts in reconnecting with customers and employees.
Terminal Upgrades Needed:
With a strong economy and growing arrivals, Munoz discussed the need for infrastructure upgrades, especially to the state’s aging baggage systems.
“What we would like to act upon is sometimes made a bit difficult with the process here in Hawaiʻi. We don’t have an airport authority per se, so it’s difficult to make those investments that take a little bit of time. What we need to do is a lot bigger than just the work that we can do,” said Munoz.
“We are upgrading some of our lounges, certainly our equipment that we work with down on the ramp and things like that; but facilities like the one here at OGG and a couple of other places have been around for a while and they do need some work,” said Munoz.
“The baggage system in particular would be something that we would love to participate in the investment of; but everybody has to agree and the government has to help fund. So that’s always a difficult thing that we sort of have to tread our way through it,” he said.
Impacts of Southwest’s Entry in the Hawaiʻi Market:
One of the big stories in recent months has been the entry of Southwest Airlines into the Hawaiʻi market. We asked Munoz if Southwest would, in any way, impact United Airlines in its service to the Pacific region.
“You have another airline entrant into an already crowded field with resources and infrastructure that are a bit limited. So the operations (that) will be impacted, is that unfortunately we do worry that it’s going to slow everything down to some degree,” said Munoz.
From a competitive perspective, Munoz said, “Our business is flying big birds directly from the big cities in America with lay-flat seats, with different classes from first to economy and basic economy. So our focus is on getting people from the mainland directly to all of the islands that we travel to. Interisland is not something that we participate in. We have a great partner in Hawaiian Airlines. But again, this is a very competitive business. People are always entering and I’m sure they’ll find their way, and we will as well,” said Munoz.
Impacts of Decisions Surrounding the Boeing 737 Max on Operations:
On a national level, there’s been discussion about the impact of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max on profitability and trust. We asked Munoz how the decisions surrounding the aircraft will impact United’s plans moving forward.
“The hope is that at the right time, that aircraft will be returned safely to flight. We are all waiting for the regulators and investigators to make sure that everything gets done properly,” said Munoz. “It’s important, I think, to make sure that the flying public is also comfortable with flying that aircraft. So there will be a deliberate process to communicate and ensure that our flying public is comfortable on those aircraft,” said Munoz.
“The impact, of course, when you have aircraft that you were supposed to fly that you can’t, it’s difficult. Our team has done an amazing job of making sure that we don’t cancel as many flights as others and we’re using other equipment to make sure we get people where they want to be. But, of course, the longer it goes, the more impact it has. And we’re trying to minimize that for our customers,” said Munoz.