United CEO Oscar Munoz defends holding up planes for connecting flights

United Airlines is encouraging staff to hold planes for connecting passengers, even if it means the flights depart a few minutes later than scheduled.

On-time departure scores “be damned,” CEO Oscar Munoz said at CNBC’s Evolve summit in Chicago on Tuesday. “We don’t care. We have saved tens of thousands of connections.”

In February, United started testing a new program called ConnectionSaver, which sifts through flights for passengers with tight connections, factoring in the time it takes for late arriving connecting passengers to make to the next gate.

United expanded the program in June throughout its network ahead of the busy summer travel season, when it estimated 150,000 passengers a day would need to make a connecting flight. Connecting passengers who opt-in for the program receive text messages with directions through the airport.

United ranked eighth of the 10 largest U.S. passenger airlines in on-time arrivals with a 73.3% rate in the first seven months of the year, according to the Department of Transportation, ahead of JetBlue Airways and discount carrier Frontier.

The tool, which takes into account how many passengers already on board would be inconvenienced if the plane waited for travelers rushing to make their connecting flight, has prevented more than 36,000 passengers from missing connections since the tests began in the winter, according to spokesman Jonathan Guerin.

United has learned hard lessons about customer support in the past several years, most notably after the public outcry to  the violent dragging of passenger David Dao off a flight operating for United in April 2017.

Since then, the airline has trained staff in a program it calls Core4 for customer-facing employees, like flight attendants, a program that gets its name from four pillars: safe, caring, dependable and efficient.

“If you’re not on time you fall in the ranks and you read about it in the papers,” he said. “But what about you who’s running late and you see (the plane) there and we’re shutting the door on you because we have to be on time. That’s not particularly caring.”