United puts CEO succession plan in motion

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Oscar Munoz has been credited with improving company culture.
Oscar Munoz has been credited with improving company culture.

United CEO Oscar Munoz will step down in May, handing the reins to airline president Scott Kirby. 

Munoz will serve a one-year term as United’s executive chairman following his departure.

"With United in a stronger position than ever, now is the right time to begin the process of passing the baton to a new leader," Munoz said Thursday. "One of my goals as CEO was to put in place a successful leadership transition for United Airlines. I brought Scott to United three years ago, and I am confident that there is no one in the world better equipped to lead United to even greater heights."

The appointment of Kirby had been widely anticipated. In an October interview during ARC's Travel Connect conference, Kirby beat back rumors that he was considering rejoining American Airlines by saying that he planned to end his career at United. Kirby was American's president prior to joining United in August 2016.

Scott Kirby
Scott Kirby

During his tenure as United president, Kirby has largely been seen as the architect of United's operational strategy, while Munoz has been credited with improving company culture. Notably, Kirby was key in United's early 2018 decision to expand capacity faster than competitors Delta and American, with an emphasis on adding more regional connectivity out of United hubs.

Munoz joined United after the abrupt departure of Jeff Smisek amid a federal corruption investigation that later led to the airline paying a $2.25 million civil penalty. In October 2015, less than two months into his tenure, Munoz suffered a heart attack. A heart transplant kept him out of work for five months. 

In spring 2017, Munoz was back in the headlines, this time after a United Express passenger was dragged off a flight, bloodied and injured, by Chicago aviation police when he refused to vacate his seat on an overbooked flight.

But the past two years have brought far better news for United. The carrier's stock has risen approximately 27% since the start of 2018, far outperforming competitors. United's profitability has surged past American's, though it continues to lag Delta.

"We've taken the narrative about United from this sort of 'What’s wrong?' to, I think, an exciting 'What’s next?'" Munoz told a room of airline industry journalists in late October.

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