United's New CEO Vows to End Disunity at Post-Merger Airline

Oscar Munoz

Oscar Munoz, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc.

Photographer: Wayne Slezak via United Continental Holdings Inc.
  • Munoz says he's heard employees' frustrations under Smisek
  • `It's time for a new day,' carrier's chief writes in letter

United Continental Holdings Inc.’s new chief executive officer, who was installed after his predecessor’s ouster, pledged to unite a workforce that’s still divided almost five years after the merger that created the airline.

In a letter to employees, Oscar Munoz promised consultations with workers before adopting any cost cuts and scrutiny of the use of management consultants. He said he’s heard workers’ skepticism in meetings since he succeeded Jeff Smisek on Sept. 8.

“I recognize that the journey hasn’t always been smooth and it won’t be fixed in a day,” Munoz said. “This is a marathon with a running start. I’m ready to take this team forward. It’s time for a new day. Come with me.”

Smisek had been the company’s only CEO since leading the 2010 tie-up between former United parent UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines. During his tenure, United trailed a benchmark industry stock index, couldn’t reach unified contracts for flight attendants and mechanics, struggled with on-time arrivals and suffered flight disruptions from computer failures this summer.

Already a United director, Munoz became president and CEO after the board replaced Smisek amid a government probe and an internal investigation into the airline’s dealings with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The agency runs New Jersey’s Newark airport, a United hub.

Munoz’s letter related workers’ frustration at the company’s spotty performance in recent years, including an anecdote from a 25-year-veteran flight attendant who was near tears as she told him she was “tired of having to tell people I’m sorry.”

The CEO is new to running an airline but not to the intricacies of dealing with a large, unionized workforce. He previously served as president and chief operating officer of railroad giant CSX Corp. United had 84,000 workers as of June 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We’ve heard that you want to be empowered to do good work with effective
tools,” Munoz wrote. “We will give you the right tools to deliver the service and reliability I know we are capable of.”

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