Bob Schumacher reflects on his aviation career

Bob Schumacher, the United Airlines MD of sales

Bob Schumacher, United Airlines’ MD of sales for UK and Ireland – who also chairs Star Alliance’s UK steering committee – is in the vanguard of aviation’s high-velocity thrust into the future. It’s been, he says, an occasionally turbulent but steady climb

I was once a plane spotter, sadly. I had an uncle who worked for Swiss Air, and he’d drag me and a cousin to the end of the runway in Zurich where he lived so we could watch planes. I lost half my hearing at that time, I’m sure.

If you put your mind to it you can do it. My first-ever job was at a DIY store aged 16 for £4.50 a day. I was very impractical, as I continue to be around the house every weekend. It took a bit of reading of backs of paint tins, but I got there.

Once I entered this industry, I never wanted to leave. I drifted from university into a carefree summer working for one of the handling companies at Gatwick. It was good work for a young man, interfacing with the front end of the aviation world, down under the floor where no customer sees anything, immersing myself in something completely new.

It’s important to experience the coalface. As an airport manager for Continental Airlines, and before that a charter company called Air 2000, I saw the aircraft come and go, and dealt with the front-end customer – the revenue source, if you like. I also worked in the world of cargo – unfashionable, but a key part of what we do.

Nothing stands still in this business. Stepping out into Heathrow Terminal 2 [the UK home of Star Alliance], which just over two years ago was still under dustsheets, demonstrates that.

Having markers in your company history is a motivator. United Airlines did the first-ever airmail delivery from Boise, Idaho, to Washington 90 years ago. The first in-flight kitchens were on United. We were the first North American carrier to operate the Boeing 787. All this allows staff to say, ‘Wow, we really have earned our pedigree.’

If you bind and drive together, you will win together. A former United CEO once compared the airline business to an analogue watch. As long as it does what it’s supposed to, no one complains. It looks simple: just a couple of hands moving around a face. What people don’t see are the intricacies, the co-ordination of so many things that makes it work. Synchronisation is everything: between travel agents and partners, technology, handling companies, external services – caterers, cleaners, mechanics – as well as the onboard crew.

It’s always a competitive game – even when entering an inter-company alliance. Once a customer has a Star Alliance ‘halo’ on their head, as we refer to it, all is fair in love and war. But we have to take the commercial strand out of the endeavour of fighting for the customer, and making sure that the passenger’s experience is the best, whoever took their money.

Ensure you communicate and co-ordinate properly across divisions. Undertaking a vast project? The danger is for departments, companies and projects – like T2 – to silo. If one goes ahead of the curve or lags behind, nothing happens. With building T2 it was sacrosanct that we were shoulder-to-shoulder.

Business is utterly about people. That’s something I hope I’ve learnt as a human being, not just as a manager. We’re a service provider, and if we can provide service for one another too, and lean on each other, we will achieve great things.

My business hero? I was lucky enough to have a godfather, Ernest Bader, who founded a chemical company in the 1920s, called Scott Bader. He was a successful businessman with strong ethics. In the early 1950s he gave his company away to his employees, and the Scott Bader Commonwealth remains a successful business today. He valued his people first and foremost, and that has to be right.

Aviation has a chequered past. Economic cycles happen, geopolitical cycles happen, events happen. We’ve been buffeted by economic stings. You could spend a lot of time poring over events such as 9/11, but I think it showed there is enormous resilience in this industry to bounce back.

Escaping is important. Taking our very tolerant labrador out for walks is invaluable time to digest stuff and put everything into perspective.

Do it together, win together. If you’re a decent human being who treats others with dignity and respect, you will achieve.

There are hard lessons to take on, but those of us who have been around know that the sun will continue to rise in the east, and another bright day always awaits.

More on Bob Schumacher

Watch a CNN news clip about the reopening of T2, featuring an interview with Bob Schumacher

About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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