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United on Ousted CEO: ‘Jeff Smisek, Who’s He?’

Suffice it to say that United won’t be commissioning any monuments to its former leader, Jeff Smisek, anytime soon.

Amid a federal corruption investigation, Smisek may as well have been perp-walked out of United’s Chicago offices earlier this week. And less than 24 hours after Smisek’s abrupt ouster, the former face of the airline is nowhere to be seen. United scrubbed any references to its disgraced leader on the company website. Run a keyword search on “Smisek” and the airline’s leadership team pops up, with a photo and biography of Oscar Munoz, Skisek’s replacement as president and CEO, in place of Smisek’s. Ditto for other search results, which also link to Smisek-free content.

(Note to United’s web team: The biography of Brett Hart, the airline’s EVP and General Counsel, still shows Hart “reporting directly to Chairman, President and CEO Jeff Smisek.” Excise that mention and Smisek effectively disappears.)

Even the United press release announcing the management transition mentions Smisek only once, almost as an afterthought: “The company also announced that Jeff Smisek has stepped down from his roles as chairman, president and chief executive officer, and as a director.” “Also announced”? Talk about burying the lede.

As for Smisek himself, he’s shame-walking all the way to the bank. And to anywhere United flies. Because his settlement includes $28.6 million in cash, stock, and performance awards, as well as lifetime United flight benefits and parking privileges, and the title to his company car.

But there is a catch. If Smisek is ultimately convicted or pleads guilty to a felony or “any crime involving moral turpitude,” or if he refuses to cooperate with the investigation, that settlement can be rescinded.

In the meantime, all eyes will be on Smisek’s replacement, Oscar Munoz, former president and CEO of CSX and a United board member since 2010. CSX is basically a freight-moving company, which poses challenges of a logistical nature with only a modest customer-service aspect. So it’s impossible to predict how his capabilities and business approach will play out at United. And it won’t be easy to win back the trust and loyalty of legions of disaffected United customers, never mind the favorable opinion of Wall Street. It’s a job for a turnaround specialist, and successful turnarounds are not on Munoz’s resume.

For all United’s efforts to distance itself from its discredited former CEO, his legacy of service and operations underperformance remains firmly in place. United customers will be waiting and watching and hoping for a turnaround. And wondering: “Who was Jeff Smisek; or was that just a bad dream?”

Reader Reality Check

What should Oscar Munoz’s first orders of business be as United’s new chief.

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