When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it posed an existential threat to airlines around the world, including United Airlines. That meant there was an intense focus internally and externally on how the airline responded to the global crisis.
The big questions that popped up for United Airlines were how dramatically the pandemic would reduce flight schedules; what kind of steps the company was taking to ensure the safety of employees and customers; whether it would need to lay off tens of thousands of staffers; and how COVID-19 would change United’s business model both in the near and long term.
As a result, the airline’s news coverage was overwhelmingly negative, says Josh Earnest, United Airlines’ global chief communications officer. But United decided not to hide from it but rather to step forward and tell its story.
“Part of our approach from the beginning — this wasn’t just a PR approach, it was a business strategy — was that we did not want to be defined by the crisis; we wanted to be defined by our response to it,” says Earnest.
Former Obama administration White House press secretary Earnest, who has been United’s comms head since May 2018, notes that when a company faces unprecedented circumstances, there is no point sugarcoating a situation when communicating to employees and the public.
“We have enhanced our brand and leadership team’s credibility by telling people the truth about the difficult circumstances we faced and leveling with them about the strategy we were pursuing to try to deal with it,” says Earnest. “United had the best story to tell out of all the airlines. We went to great lengths as a comms team to capitalize on that.”
Reporting to United Airlines president Brett Hart, Earnest oversees 115 staffers globally within the company’s advertising, global community engagement, social media, PR and employee comms teams. In the U.S., United works with corporate advisory firm Brunswick. It works with local agencies overseas.
United CEO Scott Kirby notes that when Earnest first joined the airline, his biggest challenge was building a sophisticated communications team that matched the ambitions of the airline.
“Eighteen months later, he had that team in place just prior to the pandemic — which was critical in helping us aggressively and proactively manage the greatest crisis in our history,” says Kirby. “And today, I’m more confident than ever that effective communications has become one of our most critical competitive advantages. Josh is more than just the best communicator in corporate America: He’s also a trusted adviser to me on a host of challenging issues and helps set the strategies that are building the future of United.”
What United Airlines has done since March 2020
One of the airline’s first actions was to announce in May 2020 its CleanPlus initiative, a new standard in cleanliness and safety throughout the company. The Chicago-based carrier has been collaborating with Clorox and top medical experts at Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, Cleveland Clinic has advised United on new technologies, training development and quality assurance programming. The airline also introduced social distancing protocols such as hands-free kiosks, sneeze guards and mandatory face masks.
“We wanted to develop multiple layers of protection for employees and customers,” says Earnest. “We were the first airline to announce a mask mandate and we have been the most aggressive airline when it comes to electrostatic spraying to disinfect the interior of an aircraft.”
United Airlines has been utilizing the NovaRover, a machine that applies an antimicrobial coating on interior surfaces of the planes.
He adds that being able to “talk in specifics” about what United Airlines has been doing and highlighting its partnerships with experts in disinfection and disease added credibility to its effort and built confidence in the safety of travel.
United also wanted passengers to know they face minimal risk of contracting coronavirus when flying. So — with members from Boeing, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, National Strategic Research Institute and research firms — United conducted a study for the Department of Defense.
The study found the risk of transmission of the virus through the air was reduced 99.7% thanks to high-air exchange rates, HEPA-filtered recirculation and downward ventilation found on modern jets.
“We also promoted that research withan Instagram video summarizing that study,” says Earnest. “That video is the most shared piece of social media content we produced in 2020.”
In the months since COVID-19 vaccinations were made available, United has also incentivized customers and employees to get the shots. Between May and June 2021, United Airlines offered its loyalty program members the chance to win free flights for a year's worth of travel, in support of the Biden administration's national effort to encourage more people to get their COVID-19 vaccination.
Under the terms of the Your Shot to Fly sweepstakes, any new or existing MileagePlus members who uploaded their vaccination records to the airline's mobile app or website were entered into a competition to win free flights for a year anywhere in the world in any class of service. In addition, the airline gave away 30 pairs of round trip tickets in June.
United also announced it would not hire employees who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19.
It hasn’t all been serious, though. United didn’t want to miss any opportunities to have fun, so it created Zoom backgrounds in April 2020 that celebrate travel, such as a background of the company’s Polaris lounge and another one featuring a Polaris first-class seat. In October, it added backgrounds showing a United plane with big red-and-blue letters that said “Vote.”
“We were trying to show a little personality in uncertain times and access a little nostalgia that people were feeling for air travel,” says Earnest. “That was a nice and surprising way for us to show up for people.”
A major leadership change and internal comms
Just a couple of months into the pandemic, United had to contend with a CEO transition as Kirby took over the reins from former incumbent Oscar Munoz. United used that change as an opportunity to try to open up some new communications channels, says Earnest.
“[Kirby’s] comms style is blunt, direct and candid,” says Earnest. “Rather than try to soften the edges of that style, we leaned into it.”
The team launched an Instagram account for Kirby. It also started a video series called Straight from Scott.
“The idea was: Say what you want about Scott, but he will tell it to you straight,” says Earnest. “We had him deliver messages on a regular basis to our employees. He doesn’t use a Teleprompter or scripts.”
Over the past year, the airline has pioneered the use of a variety of platforms allowing it to conduct remote town hall meetings with tens of thousands of employees worldwide.
Employees have been encouraged to submit questions via email for the meetings, but have also had the chance to ask questions over live video of United Airlines’ execs.
“Sometimes, employees in airports on shifts, serving customers, have even been able to step away and ask our CEO questions [during these meetings],” says Earnest.
The conversations were not always easy. The pandemic forced United to reduce its management and administrative workforce by 30%, starting in October.
“That affected the comms function in the same way it affected every other management and administrative function,” says Earnest. “Outside of those changes, we have not had to lay anyone off.”
He adds that United Airlines’ frontline employees have been “heroic” in persevering through difficult circumstances to serve customers.
Externally, United is focused on what Kirby refers to as “not getting back to normal, but getting back to new.” United wants to emerge from the pandemic as a different company than it was at the start, Earnest says.
“Even amid this global pandemic and all of the challenges our customers face when they fly, our customer satisfaction metrics are at an all-time high,” he explains. “That speaks to the incredible perseverance, courage and professionalism of our employees that serve our customers well. Our challenge is how we keep up that momentum we built up when it comes to customer service.”
United Airlines introduced social distancing protocols such as hands-free kiosks, sneeze guards and mandatory face masks.
Between February and May 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration received 1,300 reports of unruly passengers from airlines, noting that passengers are refusing to comply with mask orders, drinking excessively and partaking in alleged physical or verbal assault.
United, however, hasn’t had an issue in this area. Earnest says 99.9% of customers have understood from the beginning how important it is to wear a mask and have willingly done so.
“We have policies and procedures in place to help our employees in those situations, but they are exceedingly rare,” he adds.
In July, the company is adding more than 400 daily flights to its schedule and increasing service to reopened European destinations. This marks United’s largest monthly schedule since before the pandemic. The airline plans to fly 80% of its U.S. schedule compared to July 2019 — and bookings for summer travel are up 214% compared to 2020 levels.
Airlines rely heavily on business travel for a huge chunk of their revenue. And at the beginning of June, business travel remained 70% or more below pre-pandemic levels,The Wall Street Journal reported.
But Earnest is optimistic there will be a major uptick in business travel sooner rather than later. He notes the airline has seen pent up demand for leisure travel and believes the same will happen with business trips.
“As powerful as Zoom and Microsoft Teams are as tools for connecting people across great distances and allowing them to interact and collaborate, it is no substitute for an in-person interaction,” he says. “That’s true if you are trying to talk to your grandkids or a potential new customer.”
Earnest predicts that in the fall, as more children are able to attend school in-person and more workers are in the office, more people will embark on business travel to meet with customers or colleagues.
In the meantime, United is continuing to ensure cleanliness is a priority on its aircraft. Currently, the company is focused on helping its employees get vaccinated and is using its airport clinics to provide vaccines to staffers.
“We worked with state and local governments around the country to get access to vaccine supplies for our frontline employees,” says Earnest. “We are trying to get our own employees also to overcome vaccine hesitancy by helping them understand it is necessary, important, safe and effective for keeping them and their coworkers safe.”
A home advantage
Before the pandemic, United Airlines’ executive team would meet every Monday morning to discuss priorities. But those meetings moved from once a week to once a day when the pandemic hit. As the public started emerging from lockdown, the meetings gradually scaled back to fewer days per week.
July 2020 was an inflection point for Earnest. His son, who had just finished Kindergarten, started Little League Baseball and practices were at 10 a.m. on Fridays.
Josh Earnest and son.
“I said, ‘This is actually a great opportunity,’” says Earnest. “So I cleared my schedule at that time on Fridays to go out and do baseball practice with my son. That is something I was only able to do because we were all working from home.”
Every Friday, following the practice, at 11 a.m., the executive team had a conference call. So Earnest rushed home to join it in his sweaty T-shirt and baseball cap.
“After months of being knee-deep in the crisis and feeling it was a 24/7 responsibility to manage through it, it was the first hint of being able to incorporate something else important into my life too,” Earnest says.
Little League Baseball ended up being the highlight of Earnest’s summer.
“I am excited about this year coming into full swing,” he adds.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the prizes for the Your Shot to Fly sweepstakes and the number of staffers on the global team.