Earlier this week, Oscar Munoz stepped down as CEO of United Airlines, after nearly five years on the job. How should we evaluate his legacy?
My friend Gary at View from the Wing called the Oscar Munoz legacy disappointing. His focus, however, was not so much on Munoz himself, but his critical decision in 2016 to poach Scott Kirby, United’s new CEO, from American Airlines:
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.
Red flags and other warning signs certainly accompany Kirby. While I have argued that he is the best person to fight for United’s survival during this time, I suspect he will continue to alienate customers with onboard service cutbacks and further devaluations to MileagePlus.
More Than Kirby
And while Munoz’s inability to control Kirby is a mark on his legacy, I want to focus on Munoz’s unique role in transforming the culture of United Airlines.
I’ve flown United as my primary airline since 2004, which spanned the Tilton, Smisek, Munoz, and now Kirby years. Munoz was absolutely instrumental in transforming culture and improving morale. A strong leader has that impact and employees rallied around him.
Why? It was not because of core4 or other gimmick programs to encourage cohesion. It wasn’t because of service changes after David Dao, because every United employee who talks to me off-the-record still thinks that Dao was belligerent and deserved to get dragged off the plane.
People say nice guys finish last, but Munoz’s secret was that he was a genuinely nice guy. He did not have to put on act to seem likable; he was likable. A family man, honest and empathetic, he was a pleasure to be around. And that inspired the same amongst his employees.
That truly counts for something.
And while Munoz’s tenure ends on a down note with COVID-19, he ushered in a transformation of the business class fleet, an impressive expansion in United’s international route map, and many innovations, like United’s excellent app, that have made travel easier. Plus many years of profit and new contracts with pay raises for unionized divisions…
I appreciated that Munoz was not a micromanager, but instead delegated key tasks to others. When I look at leaders I admire, it is those who are strong enough to trust others, noting that even if they (think they) could do everything themselves better, there is great benefit to building a team that works well with one another and in which mutual trust is cultivated.
I won’t excuse Munoz for many of the more recent unfriendly polices toward employees and customers. I also view’s Munoz’s biggest failing as the inferior onboard wi-fi system United continues to offer compared to American and Delta.
But overall, I’d say job well done. It is up to Kirby, not Munoz, whether his legacy of goodwill is squandered.
Personally Speaking On Oscar Munoz Legacy
On a personal note, I’ve had many pleasant conversations with Munoz over the years. Again, I appreciate people who are kind. We first met at the opening of the United Club at LAX in 2016 (I met Kirby as well…he was just weeks into the job).
I met him again onboard the final United 747-400 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu in 2017. He even scanned our tickets as we boarded:
I also met him at several United Polaris Lounge openings and other United ribbon-cutting or press events.
Most recently, he congratulated me after winning top prize in the “Price is Right” style trivia contest during the last press day:
Munoz is an honorable man and that will be his enduring legacy.
featured image: United Airlines