The CEO of United Airlines often speaks his mind. But now some United employees aren't very happy about what he has to say.

It's all about what happened Wednesday at the company's annual shareholders meeting. 

There were the usual airline-issue kinds of things on the agenda: rising fuel prices, the search for a new CFO.

But then there was also an activist investor from an organization called the National Center for Public Policy Research, who came with an agenda of his own. And CEO Oscar Munoz took the bait.

In short, Justin Danhof, a lawyer with the conservative organization, used the opportunity to ask Munoz about United's decision to end a discount program for NRA members in the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting on Feb. 14.

"I suppose you are ignoring the fact that the NRA had nothing to do with what happened in Parkland," Danhof said, adding, "But, hey, congratulations on your virtue signaling. What exactly did investors get out of that?"

Munoz's response was stunning and frank, according to Bloomberg: "Sir, it wasn't political. It was personal with regard to my family at United."

And those three words resonated and rebounded around the Internet quickly: "It was personal."

Wow. Munoz is unusual among the CEOs I've covered. He speaks his mind. 

As for his "family at United," it appears Munoz likely was referring to one of the victims of the Parkland shooting, 14-year-old Gina Montalto, who was the daughter of a United Airlines captain. 

"This is a beautiful example of how the United family supports one another," United Airlines spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said at the time of Montalto's funeral, when employees from United and other airlines attended, in uniform.

"That's why we made the decision," Munoz said. "We aren't here to make political conversation or strike political debate. We're here to serve customers."

But Danhof, who asked the question that prompted the "it was personal" response, was having none of it.

While acknowledging the tragedy of the deaths at Parkland, his organization posted about the exchange afterward, saying that United had "joined [the] liberal mob" and that Munoz had said "that the obviously political decision wasn't political."

So what do United's employees think of all this? I heard from a couple of dozen of them, obviously not a scientific survey, but the replies were running about 4:1 against both Munoz's answer and United's decision to drop the NRA discount. For example:

  • "It is a political decision," said one retired United employee who is also an NRA member. [A]irlines are very leftist."
  • A current United employee: "If it was political then he doesn't speak for us that do support the NRA. If it was personal, then I suggest he step down since he [can't] seem to separate personal decisions from business decisions."
  • "It's a discount not a ban. People are getting upset over a discount?" said a United ramp agent.
  • "It was his personal opinion Not mine! Shame on him," said a current program manager.
  • Another current employee: "He doesn't speak for me and he is NOT my family!"
  • A current United first officer: "All these mass shootings and now in our schools, and we still have an NRA."

Set this NRA issue aside, and Munoz is a popular CEO among the rank and file.

Each time his name comes up in controversy, I can count on hearing from United employees who almost uniformly have his back and say they appreciate him.

But on this issue, like most of America, it would seem that United is not exactly united. In fact, a sizable number, maybe even a majority, think he got this one wrong.

(By the way, Montalto's parents established a GoFundMe for a memorial scholarship fund in their daughter's name. As of this writing it had accumulated $426,000 out of a $500,000 goal.)

Published on: May 24, 2018