November 5, 2015 / 9:59 PM / 4 years ago

United Airlines CEO to return in early 2016 after heart attack

(Reuters) - United Continental Holdings Inc UAL.N Chief Executive Oscar Munoz will return to work in the first quarter of 2016, he said Thursday, three weeks after suffering a heart attack.

United Continental Holdings Inc CEO Oscar Munoz is seen in an undated handout picture courtesy of United Airlines. REUTERS/Courtesy of United Airlines/Handout

The news ends uncertainty about who will run United, the second-largest U.S. airline by capacity. The company earlier appointed General Counsel Brett Hart as acting CEO and said its board had been preparing for “all potential outcomes” resulting from Munoz’s hospitalization on Oct. 15.

“I am on the road to recovery,” Munoz said in a statement. “My time away will be a little longer than I would like, but based upon discussion with my doctors I will be back in the first quarter.”

Shares were unchanged in after-market trading following the news.

Munoz took over as CEO in September with aims to rebuild morale after years of strained labor relations. He spent his first month on the job criss-crossing the United States to hear from employees and travelers how to improve the airline.

His predecessor Jeff Smisek resigned because of probes into United’s relationship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which focused on whether the company added flights to Columbia, South Carolina to curry favor with then-Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who had a home there.

Hart has promised to continue Munoz’s agenda. However, S&P Capital IQ cut its rating on the company’s stock to “Buy” from “Strong Buy” because it believed Hart had limited experience in finance, operations or customer service.

Under Hart, the company has put forward a tentative deal for maintenance workers, paving the way for the first contract covering technicians from both United and Continental since the airlines merged in 2010.

Last week United said it would not outsource more jobs in baggage handling or customer service at least until 2017, following a round of airport outsourcing this year.

“It’s definitely not too late” for Munoz to make change, Sterne Agee CRT analyst Adam Hackel said.

Still, Munoz will face a host of challenges upon his return.

Chicago-based United had the worst customer satisfaction of any North American airline, with the exception of low-cost carrier Frontier, according to J.D. Power’s 2015 ranking. That’s in part thanks to a higher rate of late arrivals than peers.

Smisek’s team started addressing this by scheduling more planes to fly back and forth from hubs rather than circulating through multiple cities, so that winter storms would not have a ripple effect.

Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish and Diane Craft

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