United CEO Scott Kirby is apologizing to customers and his own employees after taking a private jet during a week when his airline was canceling thousands of flights.
The airline confirmed Kirby flew from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, and that the company did not pay for his flight. Teterboro is about 17 miles from Newark, New Jersey, where one of United’s largest hubs is located and which was the center of the airline’s meltdown this week.
In a statement, Kirby said he regrets that his actions distracted from the professionalism of United employees.
“Taking a private jet was the wrong decision because it was insensitive to our customers who were waiting to get home,” Kirby said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize to our customers and our team members who have been working around-the-clock for several days – often through severe weather – to take care of our customers.”
On Wednesday, many customers at Newark Liberty International Airport couldn’t get to their destinations because there were no flights available. United customers have been plagued by flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage this week.
Going forward, Kirby promised “to better demonstrate my respect for the dedication of our team members and the loyalty of our customers.”
Center of troubles
The airline has canceled more than 3,000 flights since Saturday, stranding thousands of customers. On Friday as of the evening, United had 979 flight delays, or 34% of its operations, and 234 canceled flights, according to FlightAware.
Kirby blamed much of the problems with the airline’s service meltdown on the Federal Aviation Administration and a lack of adequate staffing at air traffic control centers, particularly in the New York area.
“The FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” said Kirby in an internal company memo to United staff shared with CNN on Wednesday.
He said the FAA reduced arrival rates at Newark by 40% and departure rates by 75% was “almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA.”
But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA, pushed back on that criticism of his agency Wednesday evening on CNN Primetime.
“Look, United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through. They’ve really been struggling this week, even relative to other US airlines,” he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
While he agreed there needs to be more air traffic controllers, Buttigieg said “I want to be very clear, air traffic control issues are not the number one issue causing cancellations and delays. They’re not even the number two issue. All the data, including industry’s own data is very clear on that.”
CNN’s Chris Isidore, Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.