Former United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is out with a new book, Turnaround Time: Uniting an Airline and Its Employees in the Friendly Skies. Live and Let’s Fly says he has “very fond memories of Oscar Munoz” but honestly there is only one thing in his entire legacy that matters in a lasting way: as American Airlines exited Kirby as President – they figured they could only keep two out of Doug Parker, Scott Kirby and Robert Isom so decided Kirby was odd man out – Munoz hired him as United’s President. And since post-heart surgery Munoz, without much experience in the airline industry, was always going to be a short-timer this gave Kirby a path to become Chairman of the airline himself.
To be sure, Munoz was part of an important time for United. The airline had just lost its Chairmand and CEO in September 2015 amidst a federal corruption probe. Smisek, the lawyer, should have known to call the FBI when he was being extorted by the Chairman of the Port Authority of New York New Jersey… not agree to do the crime. The Chairman of the Port Authority got a dedicated scheduled flight to his vacation home and back in exchange for putting items United wanted at Newark on the agency’s schedule for consideration.
Smisek’s involvement only came to light because of the federal corruption investigation into ‘Bridgegate,’ creation of traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey as political payback for failing to support the 2013 re-election of Governor Chris Christie. The probe reached into the Port Authority, and while Smisek was never charged Port Authority Chair David Samson was ultimately convicted for extorting the flight from United.
Then-board member Munoz took over in a rush. He lacked experience in the airline industry. However he began to get employees on his side before quickly having to take time out for health reasons. He was initially great for the airline’s culture and he green lit product investments – from Polaris, to coach snacks like stroopwafels, and improved on-board coffee (the previous brand Fresh Brew was derided by customers as ‘Fresh Poo’).
Oscar Munoz Cutting The Ribbon On The First Plane Equipped With New Business Class Seats
Given his health challenges he was likely a short-timer. He was supposed to become CEO and Chairman but his ascent to the Chairmanship of the airline was delayed by the David Dao incident. He blew the airline’s response by apologizing that customers had to be re-accommodated — as opposed to being shocked, angry, or disappointed that a customer was dragged off and bloodied.
Ultimately though the most consequential decision he made was hiring Scott Kirby as his successor. Kirby’s history is as a destroyer of airline customer experience and as a micromanager, eliminating elite bonus miles and charging for water at US Airways, insisting that American AAdvantage blindly follow the revenue-based programs of Delta and United rather than charting its own path and even getting so far in the weeds as to overrule the AAdvantage team over the name of their new 75,000 mile elite tier.
Since Kirby’s arrival at United we’ve seen a steady degradation of the Polaris business class product, from reducing service levels (dropping a flight attendant and pre-plating meals) to efforts to control alcohol consumption. Employee bonuses were cut. The airline failed to invest in competitive wifi in order to offer anything like Delta or American.
Then at the start of the pandemic – under Kirby and Munoz, still – United was the worst actor among major U.S. airlines, breaking the law by refusing refunds to customers for cancelled flights. The airline also devaluing MileagePlus when nobody was looking, via higher award pricing on partner airlines.
Oscar Munoz at Chicago O’Hare
Munoz has good feelings surrounding him, he’s seen as a good guy (despite stealing sand from a public beach), but his legacy is Scott Kirby. It’s meant expansion for United, building back the mainline route network and investing in planes and finally long after promising it beginning to invest in interiors of old planes. Kirby is also the most interesting airline CEO to listen to because he isn’t mealy mouthed, he says what he thinks more than you’d expect from other similarly-situated executives.
Munoz showed promise for United early on but stumbled. I will read his book, and indulge his narrative that will no doubt be one of ‘airline in trouble but executive listens to employees and turns around a culture.’ But it’s his choice of airline President that is his legacy.