United Airlines Names Acting CEO -- Here's What's Next

Brett J. Hart
Brett J. Hart

United Airlines has announced that it has named Brett J. Hart, currently United's executive vice president and general counsel, as acting CEO, effective immediately. President and CEO Oscar Munoz is on medical leave following a heart attack he suffered October 15.

As the airline's general counsel Hart has been responsible for government and regulatory affairs, corporate real estate, customer experience, corporate security, community affairs, contact centers and food services. He has also served as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Sara Lee, partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, and special assistant to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of Treasury. Hart joined the airline in 2010. 

The move is the second recent change in the CEO position at United Airlines. Munoz took over from previous United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek when Smisek stepped down amid a federal investigation into whether or not the airline traded favors with the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The United States attorney for New Jersey was investigating allegations that United agreed to bring back money-losing flights to an airport near the weekend home of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson in return for improvements at Newark Liberty International Airport, where United is the largest carrier. 

The airline's executive vice president of communications and government affairs and its senior vice president of corporate and government affairs also stepped down at that time. 

What's Ahead

In a statement announcing Hart's appointment as acting CEO, United said that it was too soon to tell regarding the course of Munoz's treatment and recovery. The airline said it remains "actively engaged in preparing for all potential outcomes regarding the company's leadership structure."

Hart said that he would continue Munoz's plan to focus on customer service at the airline. 

According to Business Insider, while publicly traded companies such as United Airlines are obligated to disclose when there is a change in CEOs, they do not need to disclose the hospitalization of a major executive. At the same time, companies have been more quick to do so in recent years since Apple was criticized for failing to provide information on then-CEO Steve Jobs' pancreatic cancer. 

Analysts cited by Business Insider report that United's board of directors could face a complicated job managing a CEO transition so soon after the last change in executive leadership in September. 

"They are concerned about the appearance of stability for the company and how it affects customers, suppliers and competitors," Jill Fisch, a law professor and corporate-governance expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told Business Insider. 

Reuters reports that United's stock was nearly unchanged in after-market trade following the news, and remains down 15 percent this year. 

Read more on: