United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz, who took the job just last month after his predecessor’s ouster, has been hospitalized following a heart attack, a person familiar with the matter said.
There were no more immediate specifics on Munoz’s condition, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly for the airline and asked not to be identified. Chicago-based United confirmed Friday that Munoz’s hospitalization occurred a day earlier but didn’t give a reason or say whether anyone had temporarily assumed his duties.
Munoz’s absence threatens to add to the turmoil at United, where former CEO Jeff Smisek was dismissed amid a federal investigation into the airline’s ties to the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Smisek and two lieutenants left United last month as U.S. prosecutors probe whether ex-Port Authority chief David Samson got the airline to restart a money-losing route to his weekend home in South Carolina in exchange for political favors. United dropped that service, once known as “the chairman’s flight,” days after Samson left the agency in 2014.
Since becoming CEO, the 56-year-old Munoz has highlighted the need for soothing strained union ties and improving service.
“Mr. Munoz’s challenges have been extraordinary,” Vicki Bryan, an analyst at bond researcher Gimme Credit, said in a note. “He has taken on one of the largest airlines in the world in seemingly total disarray with critical failures to address in network operations, customer service, and labor relations – the list goes on.”
A United spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy, said the airline had no comment beyond its official statement, which read: “We have been informed by Oscar’s family that he was admitted to the hospital on Thursday and we will provide further details as appropriate. In the meantime, we are continuing to operate normally.”
A situation like United’s demands more than that, and quickly, said Tim McNamara, managing partner of executive recruiter Boyden Global Executive Search in Washington. It’s possible that the Munoz suffered only a minor incident and may quickly be able to return to work, or the episode might have been more serious. But people shouldn’t be left to speculate, he said.
“For a company that has so recently been in turmoil, they even have a greater degree of responsibility,” McNamara said.
United has struggled with unions and computer breakdowns since being created in 2010 in the merger between former United parent UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines Inc. Smisek had been the new company’s only CEO; Munoz has tried to foster more communication with employees in the weeks since taking over.
He has traveled to United operations around the world, popping in on ramp employees and in aircraft galleys to chat with flight attendants. In late September, Munoz wrote a letter to employees sharing their frustration at constant cutbacks in resources and relating how a flight attendant was “near tears” while telling him she was tired of apologizing to customers for lackluster service.
“This is a marathon with a running start,” Munoz wrote. “I’m ready to take this team forward. It’s time for a new day. Come with me.”