How United Airlines President Scott Kirby Follows in Bob Crandall's Footsteps
Bob Crandall/Scott Kirby

Among the words that could describe United (UAL) President Scott Kirby's letter to employees Monday are these: passionate, intelligent, tough-minded, hub-obsessed and unrestrained.

Whatever words you choose, they cannot help but recall another former American (AAL) executive who, three decades ago, led airline industry thought.

Bob Crandall was president of American Airlines from 1980 to 1985 and CEO from 1985 to 1998. In management style, in many ways, Kirby is his descendant.

Kirby may not be quite as harsh as Crandall could be at times, but he clearly has the same high level of self-confidence and he at least begins to approach the best known description of Crandall -- "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

The description has been widely repeated. Its origin is unclear, but it apparently originated with labor; some credit a Transport Workers Union official. Unionized airline labor doesn't  always love such managers, but it generally recognizes their value.

Referring to Kirby, an American pilot who asked not to be named asked Monday after reading Kirby's letter: "How many millions did we pay this guy to leave for United and start gutting us?" When he left American in August, Kirby received a severance package valued at more than $13 million.

Another American pilot said both men were "highly regarded, detail oriented, network geniuses" who could be "intolerant of opposing opinions."

One other comparison: Crandall's biggest mistake may have been his 1992 decision to match and expand a Northwest fare cut, which came in reaction to his "Value Plan" that was intended to simplify American fares. His move dragged in other carriers and led to the biggest fare war in industry history, which cost the industry millions.

Today Kirby, like Crandall a believer in aggressive fare matching, is blamed for American's effort to match Spirit's pricing in Dallas in 2015, which dragged in other carriers and led to a fare war that cost the industry millions.

Nevertheless, Wall Street believed in Crandall and now believes in Kirby. On Aug. 30, 2016, the day Kirby signed on, United shares rose 9%, gaining about $1.5 billion in market capitalization. United shares opened at $46.95 on the day Kirby's hiring was announced and closed Wednesday at $75.39. American's share price gains trailed United's in 2016 and so far in 2017.

Kirby's letter includes an instructional primer on hub economics, celebrates a victory over American, masters detail, criticizes United for being "docile" in the past, and warns regional partners not to take advantage. It often sounds like Crandall were in Kirby's shoes.

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