Don’t Kid Yourselves, the Force Isn’t That Strong With United Yet: CEO Oscar Munoz Steps Down

Published on December 5, 2019

On Thursday, United Airlines announced that CEO Oscar Munoz will finally be stepping down and handing his lightsaber over to President Scott Kirby next spring. Munoz will serve as Executive Chairman for a one-year term, succeeding Jane Garvey, 75, who is retiring from the board.

Munoz will continue to work closely with Kirby, the Board, and the United team in shaping United’s employee and customer-centric culture, the announcement further stated.

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 in a statement.

Oscar Munoz | United Airlines

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. It has been the honor of my career to lead the 95,000 dedicated professionals who serve United’s customers every day. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Scott in the months ahead and supporting the company’s ongoing success in my new role.

Oscar Munoz, CEO United Airlines

But don’t get too excited by this, as United has some serious rectifying to do with its customer service and public image after the past two years.

Munoz who took over as CEO in 2015, replacing Jeff Smisek, who resigned amid a federal investigation, has been the subject of industry and public scrutiny over the past two-years, making his recent announcement somewhat expected and anticipated.

Following the April 2017 aftermath when security officers dragged a passenger off a United flight that was oversold.

Video of the passenger, Dr. David Dao, went viral, and showed him being pulled down the aisle, covered in blood, which resulted with United being blasted out nationally as a “heartless” and “cold” airline—not only for forcibly having a passenger kicked off a flight, but also for how poorly United (or Munoz, if we are being specific) responded to the crisis.


If you recall, the morning after the incident, Munoz put himself and United in even more hot water when he initially addressed the incident, coming off as cold and uncaring:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Several days later, Munoz and United addressed the public again, but this time fully apologizing to Dr. Dao, which it should have done immediately. But by then, the damage was done, and United’s board of directors already put its plans into motion to remove him as CEO and elevate him to chairman—vowing to improve its customer service and its image of how it treats passengers.

But of course, this was only worsened (again) in early 2018 when a United flight attendant asked a passenger to put their pet dog in an overhead bin, where it died due to lack of oxygen during a flight from New York to Houston.

Source: Morning Consult

Hours after being made out to be (again) a heartless airline, Munoz issued his public apology on behalf of the airline, vowing that they would do better. Unfortunately, the airline’s net favorability plunged 28 points after three pet-related incidents within a week’s time, but still not as impactful as the 47-point drop following Dr. Dao’s aggressive removal.

Learning the Ways of the Force in 2019

Scott Kirby | United Airlines

Following the 2018 incident, United started to see some light again, largely attributable to Kirby’s initiatives, but it’s still an uphill battle.

The airline has since increased the number of available flights, adding new flights from secondary cities like Rochester, Minnesota to United’s hubs, including Chicago, Denver, and Houston.

And that strategy paid off, according to CNBC findings, where United grew its net profit from $2.1 billion in 2017 to $2.5 billion last year. As the company stands currently, it has already earned $2.3 billion through the third quarter and raised its full-year earnings guidance in October.

In October, United announced a major partnership with Disney’s Star Wars, bringing the force 36,000 feet in the air. Paralleling its marketing strategy to coincide with the franchise’s upcoming film, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the airline added its own custom-designed Star Wars airplane to its fleet for fans to book for travel.

The plane, a Boeing 737-800 was unveiled last month, taking its first flight from Houston George Bush Intercontinental to Orlando International Airport, where passengers were welcomed on the plane with the movie’s iconic soundtrack playing as they boarded, and were given a themed amenity kit featuring tissues, ear plugs, a toothbrush, and products by skincare company Sunday Riley.

And get this—they even have their own customized safety video with lightsabers, music, and some serious force-jumping abilities by crewmembers.

But whether you believe the hype or not, with Munoz gone next May, perhaps United can take its force-like abilities and once again, regain the trust and hearts of the public, but most importantly, passengers.

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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