Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Munoz Proves the Wright Brothers Right

Whatever backstage board drama there may have been, Munoz showed courage and character strength in the face of daunting business and personal health crises.

After Warren Buffett’s losing 1989 investment in US Air, he famously condemned investing in airlines, saying investors would have saved billions of dollars if someone had shot down the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. He later bought 7 to 9 percent of the nation’s four largest airlines. Such a change in perspective is surely modeled in the turnaround of United Airlines led by exiting CEO Oscar Munoz.

United Airlines was divested from Boeing, which also controlled United Aircraft (Sikorsky and Prat & Whitney) in 1930. Under the beloved CEO Ed Carlson, it led the industry in customer service and spirited employees, but then stumbled over misguided mergers of flawed successors.

By the time Munoz stepped in, United was losing altitude fast. In 2017, I, like most business commentators and much of the flying public, joined in chiding Munoz for mistakenly defending the treatment of a 68-year-old passenger who was dragged off an overbooked flight after refusing to surrender his properly ticketed seat. The video went viral, triggering a PR nightmare and a campaign of apology.

This flashpoint followed a poorly executed 2010 merger with Continental—five years before Munoz was lured off the United board appointed to address a legacy of operational failures, plummeting morale and scandalized leadership. With no experience running an airline, he focused on employee morale and customer service only to be felled six weeks into his appointment with an emergency heart transplant.

While many would have called it quits, Munoz rebounded to address the need for more punctual operations and brought in superstar Scott Kirby, formerly at American Airlines, to help drive this effort. Their efforts led to consistent earning beats and a soaring stock price up 53% over Munoz’s reign compared with 24% for the NYSE’s airline index.

Some have speculated that Munoz’s exit after only four years in office was a sacrifice to retain Kirby who was just named Munoz’s successor. But whatever backstage board drama there may be, Munoz showed character in not giving up in the face of daunting business and personal health crises and showed courage hiring so strong a successor.

Clearly Buffett was wrong and the Wright brothers were right—as Buffett’s own investment has shown.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.