United Airlines just gave a stunning reason for a major customer-pleasing decision

What do you imagine motivates a CEO to choose one technological solution rather than another? In the case of United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, it's not what you might think.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

And inside, entertainment.

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Data is everything these days, right?

Business leaders absorb the numbers on a minute-to-minute basis before choosing to go down a particular strategic path.

Some might believe -- and with considerable reason -- that United Airlines has operated this way for a long time.

It, along with most other airlines, seems to look at the numbers and then carefully calculate how many more numbers it can extract from captive customers. The timeworn practice of nickeling and diming never goes out of style.

Yet last week United made an enormously surprising decision on an even more surprising basis.

Should you have been sleeping on an airport floor because four flights in a row were canceled, you may not know that United announced it's buying 50 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, 150 of the bigger Max 10s and 70 Airbus 321 Neos.

Oddly, the airline insisted it's not going to shove even more seats into them than ever before.

But even more odd is the decision to offer entirely new interiors, which includes, oh yes, the supposedly old-fashioned technology known as the seatback screen. (A sniff of this decision leaked, Apple-style, a couple of weeks ago.) And, to make the gesture even more meaningful, United is adding support for Bluetooth headphones.

I've had an uncomfortably religious fascination with seatback screens for a while.

Delta Air Lines believes they're wonderful things. American Airlines is ripping them all out, insisting that passengers should use their own devices. Because all American Airlines passengers are immensely wealthy, of course. Southwest has never seen the point of them, perhaps believing you'd rather your bags fly free than your imagination wander.

For its part, United had been following the American way. I've twice flown on a Max where some passengers were completely bemused by the new plane smell and the very old plane lack of a screen. ("What are we supposed to do? Read? How do you do that?")

What could have changed United's mind? You might imagine the many incidents of air rage among passengers might have had something to do with it. Or, perhaps, the knowledge that free Wifi that enjoyed enough bandwidth to allow all passengers to use their devices was still some way off.

But no.

Kirby said he's always been a fan of seatback screens. He claimed American began its conversion to ripping them out only after he left the airline and joined United.

But please stand and applaud the true hero here -- Kirby's seven-year-old son.

As Live and Let's Fly reported, Kirby recently flew with his whole family. His wife and seven-year-old were in First Class. He was with his other kids in coach.

His seven-year-old, he said, played Battleship with another of the plane's passengers. Some seatback screen technology allows for this elevated joy.

Kirby Jr. won two of three and was apparently so overjoyed at his prowess -- and the fact that the seatback screen allowed him to play and triumph -- that this experience finally swayed him to put the reverse thrust on ripping those screens out. Indeed, Kirby now says that kids who may not watch TV at home are far more committed to seatback screens in planes.

Sometimes, it takes a personal experience for CEOs -- just like politicians -- to see the light. Sometimes, only personal experience can draw decision makers away from the spreadsheet -- seatback screens are an expense -- and toward customer satisfaction.

Seatback screens are, to my mind, inordinately helpful even for business travelers. They can work on their own laptops while being simultaneously distracted by murders, wars, heroes and the occasional love story on their seatback screens. It's a saner way to fly.

Perhaps United should name its latest seatback screens after Kirby's son. Customers should always know where the best ideas come from.

Then again, what would have happened if Kirby's son had lost?

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