Corner Shops

by Oscar Munoz - Executive Chairman, United Airlines

SOURCE: United Airlines Inc.


Today, as we glimpse the dawn of a new year, thousands of specialized containers are being carefully loaded onto United aircraft, each one meticulously packed with doses of the lifesaving vaccine for Covid-19, each precious parcel handled with the love of our United employees who understand the gift of life it holds for so many people and families.   

Last week, United proudly—with great emotion and without delay—delivered the very first shipment of vaccine on a commercial airline into the U.S., the first of millions more to be transported by our friends throughout the aviation industry. 

This gift is the answer to so many prayers this holiday season, but it is not a miracle.  

It is the work of many human hands and brilliant minds; it comes at the cost of so much sacrifice and selflessness; it is the substance of things hoped for and evidence of so many efforts, seen and unseen; at the end of the day, it represents the sum of all that is best in us. 

The virus that brought the whole world to heel has required the whole world’s faith to heal the hurt it’s caused, and I am deeply grateful to the work of my United family since the pandemic began to do just that. 

United has flown hundreds of missions to bring vital medical supplies and healthcare personnel to where they’ve been needed most, all in order to fight the pandemic. Now, we are playing a crucial part in bringing it to an end, for good.   

But, as the saying goes, ‘Vaccinations are the cure, not one vaccine.’ That’s why the United family will not rest until we’ve done everything possible to distribute the vaccine worldwide and put this nightmare safely behind us. 

Like many nightmarish dreams, this pandemic has given us an important glimpse, a vision of what our lives would be like if we didn’t have that which makes life most worth living: one another. 

In 2020, we’ve wrestled with a sort of Ghost of Christmas Future, come to teach us something valuable.  

That’s the way I felt, anyway, recently when I stepped out of my house and began walking my usual morning route toward our headquarters in downtown Chicago, located at the iconic Willis Tower (you may know it as the Sears Tower). It has sat largely empty since the pandemic began.

It truly felt like a dream, so surreal in nature. I passed the familiar storefronts where I’d stop for a cup of tea, but none of the regulars were there to chat with. I ambled through the usually bustling streets, now emptily silent. 

As Chicago’s hometown airline, our offices represented the single largest private employer in Chicago’s famed downtown district, the “Loop.” Our presence there also brought life and economic vitality to so many local shops and small businesses daily.  

Likewise, as I continue to travel our system (relying, as a recent heart transplant patient, on the incredible safety of our service) I see a similar vacuum in the airport terminals. As I walk from gate to gate, I miss the familiar faces behind the shop counters and in the gate areas that made each airport feel like a home. 

I can’t help but be reminded of the classic scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey stumbles through what used to be his hometown, made unrecognizable to him since he was granted his wish to simply not exist. 

“Strange, isn’t it?” says his guardian angel, Clarence. “Each life touches so many other lives. Leaves an awful hole when they’re not around, doesn’t it?” 

On top of that, I thought of the small businesses in all of our destinations around the world that depend on airlines to bring tourists and business travelers to their establishments and have been hurting since we’ve curtailed our service. 

A shop around the corner is still a local small business, even if you have to take a long flight to get there. 

This is the irreplaceable role that all large businesses play in their local communities. It is the special role airlines are privileged to play in the cities and communities we serve around the world.

How can Venice truly sing to you without hearing the voices of its gondoliers echoing through its grand canals and little shops? How can New York truly shine when Broadway is dark, its restaurants closed? 

Astronauts may be able to spot Paris, the City of Lights, from space, but only because of the heat of its nightlife and the vibrancy of its café society.  

“As long as the Coliseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Coliseum falls, Rome will fall; when Rome falls, the whole world will fall,” wrote the Venerable Bede. 

Not so. For cities are more than a collection of monuments. Visiting them is more than the pictures you take. It’s the people that matter, and the irreplaceable small businesses, restaurants and corner shops. 

The produce of a small farmer, the wares of a homegrown artist, the cuisine of a local chef – to me, these are more than worth a flight, all by themselves. 

In my first weeks at United, we asked our employees to submit a few words on what inspires them about their vocations. The result was United’s first-ever official shared purpose: “We connect people and help Unite the world.” 

Connecting people to one another comes first, last and always. 

Soon – very soon – life will return. But hopefully not as normal, not entirely. 

The waking nightmare of 2020 will break, giving way to an epiphany. Like George Bailey, who finally understands the role a single person and business can play in the lives of others, we can walk the streets of towns near and far, large and small, and do our part to bring back the life that’s been missing these long months. 

As we shop for our loved ones this holiday season, I hope we all do what we can to support the businesses who can’t wait to see us again. As we can increasingly travel the world safely, I also hope we take it up on ourselves to travel to that little shop around the corner. 

Even if it means flying around the world to get there. 

Happy Holidays, in peace and safety, 

Oscar Munoz 

Tweet me: "In my first weeks at @United, we asked our employees to submit a few words on what inspires them about their vocations. The result was United’s first-ever official shared purpose: “We connect people and help Unite the world.”" - Oscar Munoz


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