An Interview With Jill Kaplan

Jill Kaplan, President, New York/New Jersey, United Airlines 

Published 5 November 2018


You’ve built a fantastic career in media, what prompted the move to aviation?

It was one of those moments in life that you don’t expect – the opportunity came out of nowhere and grabbed my interest in a way that surprised me. I loved my former role of Publisher; but there was something about it that was incredibly exciting to me at this point in my life – going out of my comfort zone, learning a new industry, becoming part of the New Jersey community in addition to New York and being intellectually challenged in a fresh way.  Another draw was the chance to build the position from the ground up and leverage learnings being in a highly disruptive industry such as media to the airline industry. The decision was a family decision and we collectively agreed, it was an extremely unique career crossroad to represent a brand I’ve personally and professionally had a deep connection to and I’ve never looked back.


You’ve spoken in the past about growing up in a family where your mother had to work long hours. Since beginning your career, has maintaining a healthy work/life balance been a priority for you as a result?

As a kid growing up, family always came first and it’s no different today with my own family. But finding a “balance” is something I continuously work on and today have a profound appreciation of how hard my mom worked on this as well. Over the years, I’ve refined certain activities – no longer do I have a list of every single thing that needs to get done. I list the most important and then start a new list and schedule for example school events as soon as I know the date. My husband and I divide and conquer on household tasks and every day we take time to talk – not just how was your day, but live in the moment of what’s really going on at school, with friends, etc. I guess what I’m most proud of is that my girls and husband are my biggest cheerleaders – they know that they will always come first, but their unwavering support and love enable me to be immersed in my love for my role.


Follow-up: since starting your career, have you found attitudes towards the work/life balance have improved? How does United’s culture help achieve/support this balance?

It’s changed dramatically. When I first started working, “work from home” was not part of the dialogue; however, at least in New York to be competitive and attract and retain talent, flexibility is essential. My rule of thumb is that whether you have a leak in your house, sick child at home or taking a parent to a doctor’s appointment, employees should be treated as adults and trusted that they are doing what they said they would be doing and if they aren’t, they shouldn’t be working at the company.


What more can be done to support working mothers/fathers in the workplace? 

Honest, direct, and clear communication. For employees, talk to your manager, let them in so they fully understand why you are asking and as a manager, it is critically important to set expectations, and a check in date to review how it is going for both parties. Keep an eye out for trends in your industry, where there might be an opportunity to evaluate company policies, procedures and reflect on your corporate culture so that you are able to attract the best and the brightest as well as retaining top talent. This is another area of disruption that companies and individuals need to be adaptive and open minded about because the cost of losing a valuable employee or not having the right team in my mind costs much more than letting someone work at home; because in the end if you can’t trust that person to do their job you don’t have the right person.


The aviation industry is evolving constantly, what is United doing to stay ahead of the curve? 

The aviation industry is forever changing and the key is to stay ahead of the curve.  At United Airlines we are customer focused in everything we do. We are introducing new technologies as well as new products and services which are improving the travel experience for all of our customers throughout their journey. I call it the Customer 360 mindset.

United Polaris business class represents our most significant product transformation in more than a decade. The focus behind the Polaris experience has always been to provide long-haul travellers with what they’ve asked for: better sleep in the sky and the airline continues to increase momentum of its roll-out. On average, United plans to add one aircraft with the new United Polaris business class seat every 10 days from now through to 2020. With a focus on providing a more tranquil journey from departure-to-landing, United has opened an exclusive portfolio of United Polaris lounges across the U.S.

Innovation is key for the future – for our customers and for United – and we are in the business of constantly staying ahead of the game and providing the technology our customers want to see. We continue to invest in technology that puts flight information and transactions at customers’ fingertips, with an app that enables mobile bookings, status updates, check-in, boarding passes and more. The latest update will be released in early 2019. We were the first U.S. airline to offer customers the ability to scan their passports on iOS and Android mobile devices to check in for international flights and allow customers to receive boarding passes when connecting to 19 airline partners on their smartphones.

As part of our ongoing efforts to put customers at the centre of everything we do, we identified boarding as an opportunity to improve the airport experience and recently introduced our “Better Boarding” process at gates around the world, designed to reduce customers’ stress by spending less time waiting in line and providing them with improved boarding information.


What innovations does United have in the pipeline that you are most excited about?

We’re giving employees and customers the latest technology to make their travel experience more seamless. By the end of the year, we are finalizing the rollout of “Every Flight has a Story”, a programme that shares more details behind delays, and what our customers should expect when their flight is delayed, regardless of the reason. Customers are given notifications via text messages, our app, and e-mail. We are finding that they are appreciative of the updates and it helps ease their concerns about the journey.

Later this year and into 2019, United will begin to introduce United® Premium Plus, providing customers with more options so they can choose the best experience that fits their particular needs when they travel. The new product is the perfect option for someone who wants an upgraded experience from standard Economy, but does not necessarily wish to select the Polaris experience. Available on select international flights, Premium Plus will provide enhanced comfort and amenities. The seats will be more spacious and customers will enjoy upgraded dining on china dinnerware, free alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit and more. We expect further details to be announced shortly.


United is one of the leading airlines for transatlantic flights between the UK and US – How important is the ‘special relationship’/transatlantic relationship for United and its customers?

We appreciate the special bond between the U.K. and the U.S.  We are proud to have served the U.K. for over quarter of a century now. We not only provide daily services from London Heathrow, five peak day flights alone from Newark, but also fly from Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, offering travellers across the U.K the opportunity to fly United Airlines and connect to destinations across the Americas via our U.S. hubs.


Follow-up: What does the transatlantic relationship mean to you?

It’s critically important to United Airlines and business leaders in the New York region. We are jointly vested in the success of one another’s economic vitality and supporting our transatlantic relationship is essential for continued growth.


Airlines such as United exist to bring people and communities closer together. Outside of its transportation role, what is United doing to bring communities closer together both locally and nationally/internationally?

At United, we strive to meet our corporate responsibilities by taking an active role as a global citizen by implementing programmes and services that help protect our environment, show pride in our communities, celebrate our diversity, protect our human rights and lead our industry in providing a clean, safe and reliable product.

We believe in connecting people and engaging local communities to make a difference. United employees provide thousands of hours of volunteer service each year through community outreach projects in the cities where our customers and co-workers live and work. We partner with organizations such as the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs, Special Olympics and Make-A-Wish. Our programmes include Adventure Bear delivery, Fantasy Flights and Volunteer Impact Grants, which recognize our employees’ passion for service by providing grants to the organizations where they volunteer.

Earlier this year, we announced a total of $8 million in grants to help address pressing issues identified by local leadership in each of our hub market communities including Newark/New York, where we announced a $2 million grant to be split between the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Urban League of Essex County, and Year Up New York. These organizations work within the local communities that surround Newark Liberty International Airport and are dedicated to vital workforce development programmes that give people opportunities for the future.


What are the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry today, and how is United working to overcome them?

There are constant challenges facing the aviation industry and new ones come along all of the time. At United Airlines, we believe in tackling these challenges head on with a view to delivering the best for our customers, our employees, our communities and our airports. This requires us to be a modern, efficient airline focused on serving our customers and also a place where people want to work, so we are committed to listening, learning and investing in our customers, employees, communities and facilities. We know people have choices so we are continually striving to be best in class, and appreciate being selected as the carrier of choice.


Throughout your career/life, how have your dreams and goals changed? 

My immediate concern out of school was to be able to support myself and secondarily be in a role that was interesting, had the potential for career growth and for a brand I was proud to represent. Today it is about being in a multifaceted role, being challenged, inspiring and supporting employees, creativity, paving new roads, intellectual stimulation, teamwork, continued career opportunities and representing a best in class brand. Being compensated is critically important, but if the other factors mentioned aren’t there, it wouldn’t be a role that I’d want to be in.


Who has been your biggest influence/inspiration/mentor in your life? 

Hands down, my father. He was blindly supportive, encouraged me to be the best worker I could be, always be honest, authentic, humble and respectful of everyone that you worked with.  He taught me to always remember “you own it” and if you’ve made a mistake it’s yours.  Make sure you let your manager know immediately so they aren’t surprised and then fix it, learn from it and do better the next time. Set stretch goals and look at life half full, never empty. He was absolutely the best.