An upbeat and energized United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz told a New York audience Thursday that his company’s mission was to become the best airline in the world.

Munoz touched briefly on the April 9 incident in which a passenger was injured when he was forcibly dragged off a United Express aircraft to make room for crew, but the main focus of his June 15 speech at the Wings Club in New York was his aspirations for United’s future.

Sounding confident and positive about United’s future, even making jokes and giving some personal insights into his journey since becoming the airline’s CEO in 2015, Munoz said the big takeaways were that “our mission is very clear—to be the best employer, have the best customer service and to become the best airline in the world.”

He described in detail the transformation plan that he initiated when he came onboard to achieve that mission. It began, he said, with sitting down with employees, listening to them and realizing that they had lost trust in the company’s leadership. The first initiative he took was “to change the conversation from ‘what’s wrong at United’ to a more exciting and energetic ‘what’s next?’”

It began with some simple things, such as improving staff break rooms and serving decent coffee to customers.

Munoz confided that when he was in a “near-death situation” with a heart medical emergency, “I kept saying, I don’t have time for this; just because your heart stops doesn’t mean the world does.”  Right after he was notified that a suitable donor heart had been found for a transplant—something he had to keep confidential, Munoz told his executive team he would see them on the other side. “It’s wonderful to be on this side rather than the other side,” he said, adding that he returned to work just one-and-a-half weeks after the surgery.

With a new board and a new set of executives, which he described as “an all-star team,” Munoz said he was convinced they would be able to solve “the puzzle that is United’s network and that is something that has never been solved.”

The strategy is to grow by improving the network and margins. “The company was docile in terms of its marketplace and we will be more assertive. We will take advantage of the resources and assets we already have,” Munoz said.

The CEO described the new labor contracts he secured across the company as a $1 billion investment well worth the price because there are high hidden costs related to a discontented workforce. “We didn’t give away the farm … we now have some of the best labor relations and therefore some of the most motivated employees,” he said.

But Munoz conceded that United—and the industry in general—needed to get a deeper sense of customer service. “That means a lot of things to a lot of people. Primarily, people want frequency, reliability and cost,” he said. It also requires more flexibility; Munoz acknowledged the discipline and rigor necessary for safety has made the industry inflexible in its customer service practices. “The rules say ‘no’; there’s an intractable element.”

He did not give a timeline for when that more flexible approach would be a reality, saying it would be a continuous effort and United was working on it “expeditiously.”

Finally, Munoz urged the new US administration to press ahead with air traffic control (ATC) system modernization. United was “firing on all four cylinders” in terms of operational performance, he said, but it was “like driving Ferraris on gravel” for as long as the US ATC system is managed by a government agency.

Karen Walker karen.walker@penton.com