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United: 1 Airline, 2 Months, 3 CEOs

Good companies typically feature management that is both capable and stable.

At United, it remains to be seen whether its top manager is up to the job. But after appointing its third CEO in less than two months, the company’s management is looking anything but stable.

When the airline practically perp-walked Jeff Smisek out the door in early September, many United customers were relieved and hopeful that a new CEO could manage the floundering company back onto a more consumer-friendly path.

The job fell to Oscar Munoz, a United board member whose career features stints as chief financial officer at AT&T and railroad giant CSX. Which raised the inevitable question: Is a finance guy the right choice to turn around a company that suffers from persistent operational meltdowns, low employee morale, and sub-par performance?

The answer to that question was put on indefinite hold when, on October 15, Munoz suffered a heart attack. Four days later, United’s board appointed Brett Hart as acting president and CEO, presumably pending Munoz’s return, although official comments regarding his condition and prognosis have been notably vague.

Hart is a lawyer, whose previous job title with United was executive vice president and general counsel, “responsible for government and regulatory affairs, corporate real estate, customer experience, corporate security, community affairs, contact centers and food services.”

And again, the question: Is this the right guy to turn around a troubled company? Although there’s nothing in his resume that suggests any special aptitude for dealing with the issues facing United, he may surprise everyone and succeed mightily. Or not. Or United’s board might decide to take a different tack and replace Hart with someone deemed a better long-term fit for the CEO job. Or Munoz could be back in the CEO seat in a few weeks, upending whatever initiatives Hart had launched. And then there are the unknown unknowns.

In the meantime, the combination of high ticket prices and low fuel costs is shoring up United’s financial results, alleviating for now the pressure to make changes necessary to address the airline’s many ongoing problems.

So many CEOs. So many questions. So few answers.

Reader Reality Check

Are you hopeful that a United turnaround is imminent?

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