United Airlines announced last week that CEO Oscar Munoz and President Scott Kirby would transition to new roles as executive chairman and CEO respectively in May 2020.
Munoz was very good for the airline. He deserves kudos for getting United back on track, for improving the company’s culture, employee morale, brand image, and customer experience, and for hiring Kirby.
- Munoz, who came to United from the railroad company CSX, had hitherto gained considerable experience while serving for 15 years on United’s (and its predecessor Continental’s) board. But, when he became CEO in 2015, he stated that he hadn’t realized how bad things had got at United. That admission reflects poorly on his board tenure—board members are expected to be clued-up about the day-to-day specifics of the company and have more visibility into the pulse of the company’s culture beyond its senior management. Alas, board members not only owe their cushy jobs to the CEOs and the top leadership but also build long, cozy relationships with them.
- Munoz will be remembered chiefly for the David Dao incident and the ensuing customer service debacle. The video of Dao being dragged out of his seat screaming was seen around the world. While the dragging was not Munoz’s fault (the underlying problem wasn’t unique to United,) the company’s horrendous response to the incident was. However, Munoz is worthy of praise for using the event as a learning exercise and an impetus for wholesale change in United’s operations and employee culture. In the aftermath of the incident, many customers vowed to boycott United flights, but that sentiment passed as the backlash over the incident waned. Even so, the David Dao incident need not have happened for United’s operational and cultural changes to materialize.
Scott Kirby is a hardnosed, “Wall Street-first, customer loyalty-last” kinda leader. Even though Kirby has made United an operationally reliable airline, his manic focus on cost-cutting has made him less popular with United’s staff and its frequent fliers. Let’s hope he’ll keep the momentum and preserve the good that Munoz has wrought.