United Airlines CEO Munoz to Return Five Months After Heart Attack

  • Chief had undergone transplant surgery in early January
  • `I'm ready to join you,' he tells airline workers in a video

Oscar Munoz.

Photographer: Wayne Slezak via United Continental Holdings Inc.

United Continental Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz, who underwent a heart transplant after falling ill five months ago, will return to full-time duty next week.

Munoz, 57, had been participating in all major corporate decisions during his recovery and has been meeting with employees and shareholders, the airline said in a statement Sunday. He had surgery on Jan. 6, and the speed of his recovery surprised many in the industry. He joined in on a conference call with Wall Street analysts just two weeks after the operation.

“I’m energized by the momentum we have and I’m ready to join you,” Munoz told employees in a new video posted Sunday on a company website, Unitedairtime.com.

Munoz is set to return March 14, when United will hold a summit of its various labor unions. The meeting originally had been scheduled for Oct. 15, the very day Munoz suffered a heart attack. He went on sick leave shortly after falling ill, and general counsel Brett Hart had served as acting CEO.

Munoz took over at United amid a scandal engulfing the world’s third-largest carrier. Then-CEO Jeff Smisek and two other executives stepped down on Sept. 8 amid a company and federal probe into the airline’s dealings with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Since taking over, Munoz promised to improve labor and customer relations at United.

Some Progress

The company has made some progress with its workers, including inking a contract extension with its pilots union. The Chicago-based airline still hasn’t brought together its flight attendants, who remain divided between those who started with pre-merger Continental Airlines and those who started with pre-merger United.

However, Munoz has created an improved atmosphere since taking over, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told Bloomberg last week. She met with Munoz on Feb. 4, and even while on sick leave he appeared to be running the airline.

“He’s back and in full control of the airline,” Nelson said last week. “He’s a medical marvel.”

United also has made progress in its on-time arrival and cancellation rates recently, no longer far behind Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. As recently as August, it ranked only 10th out of 13 U.S. carriers in on-time arrival rates according to the U.S. Department of Transportation data. However, since then it has ranked no lower than sixth, and occasionally has surpassed American.

“The board is confident in the strength and potential of United’s business -- and very pleased Oscar will be returning,” Henry L. Meyer III, non-executive chairman of United’s board of directors, said in the statement.

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