United's Munoz Plans to Return in Early 2016 After Heart Attack

Oscar Munoz

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

Photographer: Wayne Slezak via United Continental Holdings Inc.
  • `I will be back in the first quarter,' CEO tells employees
  • A marker is set for resuming efforts to transform airline

United Continental Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz is preparing to return to the airline once he recovers from the heart attack he suffered a month after he joined the carrier.

“Based upon discussion with my doctors I will be back in the first quarter,” Munoz, 56, said Thursday in a letter to employees, his first such communication since taking a medical leave in October.

Munoz’s comeback will cap a tumultuous period at the world’s second-biggest airline triggered by the surprise ouster of CEO Jeff Smisek in September. Already a United director, Munoz was hired from railroad CSX Corp. to take over immediately and vowed to focus on labor peace -- only to be stricken barely five weeks later as he prepared for a union summit.

“While I have been part of the United family for only a short time, I’ve built many valued and strong relationships so far, and I can’t wait to come back,” Munoz wrote.

General Counsel Brett Hart was named interim CEO with Munoz out, and picked up with his boss’s initiatives in reaching out to employees. Even in Munoz’s absence, United announced a tentative contract agreement with Teamsters-represented mechanics and called a halt to further outsourcing of airport jobs under existing labor agreements.

‘Good News’

“This is good news,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, whose union has separate work groups for attendants who joined the carrier before the 2010 merger of its two predecessor companies, former United parent UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines. “Oscar Munoz immediately changed the tone at United Airlines, and we are happy to read about his recovery and eager to welcome him back.”

United was unchanged at $60.30 in extended trading at 5:08 p.m. in New York. The stock’s 9.9 percent slide this year lags behind the 0.3 percent drop for the Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index.

United had shared little information about Munoz’s condition or his timetable for returning to work -- or even whether he would continue. When the board chose Hart to fill in, United said the directors were “actively engaged in preparing for all potential outcomes regarding the company’s leadership structure.”

“My time away will be a little longer than I would like,” Munoz wrote Thursday.

The CEO is a careful eater and exercised regularly, according to Travis Storey, a friend of Munoz’s from Jacksonville, Florida, where CSX is based. Storey said he was surprised last month upon hearing that Munoz had fallen ill.

With Munoz on leave, Hart is guiding the airline as well as playing a crucial role in United’s response to the U.S. investigation into the carrier’s ties to the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Smisek and two lieutenants left United amid a federal probe into whether ex-Port Authority chief David Samson got the airline to operate a money-losing route to his weekend home in South Carolina in exchange for political favors. United dropped the service, once known as “the chairman’s flight,” days after Samson left the agency in 2014.

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