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One Day, 2 New Airline Presidents, 1 Mystery

Yesterday, two of the world’s largest airlines got new presidents. What’s less clear is how, and why.

First up, United:

United Continental Holdings, Inc. (UAL) today announced that Scott Kirby has been named president of United Airlines. In this newly created role, Kirby will assume responsibility for United’s operations, marketing, sales, alliances, network planning and revenue management. Kirby’s appointment is effective immediately and he will report to Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO. Kirby joins United from American Airlines, where he held the title of president since the merger of American and US Airways in 2013.

So, United poached a top executive from arch-rival American. An apparent coup for United’s new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who has made bolstering the ranks of his airline’s management team a priority.

American, in announcing Kirby’s successor, Robert Isom, put a very different spin on Kirby’s departure:

Today’s management changes are the result of the Company’s Board of Directors’ ongoing succession planning process. As part of that process, and subsequent conversations regarding career expectations and the marketability of its executives, the Company concluded it would not be able to retain its existing executive team in their current roles for an extended period. As a result, the Board chose to act proactively to establish a team and structure that will best serve American for the longer-term future.

The implication is that Kirby’s move was less a matter of his choice to join United than it was American’s decision to oust him.

Whichever of the competing narratives is true, American and United today have new presidents, Isom at American and Kirby at United. Of the two moves, Kirby’s to United is the more impactful. He is both capable and a company outsider, giving him the potential to be a real difference-maker at an airline that sorely needs to improve in just about every respect.

Isom, on the other hand, has been American’s COO since 2013 and isn’t likely to make any significant changes to the airline’s overall direction as its new president.

Advantage, United.

Reader Reality Check

What do you expect to see at American or United as a result of the personnel changes?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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