It's hard being the CEO of United Airlines.

Not to say it isn't worth it: CEO Oscar Munoz reportedly made $18.7 million last year. But for that princely salary, he's had to deal with some of the biggest self-inflicted bad corporate PR stories any company has managed to endure.

All of this, by the way, after his predecessor had to step down in the midst of a federal corruption investigation--and after Munoz suffered a heart attack on the job, and had to have a heart transplant (a heart transplant!) the year before.

This week, Munoz spoke to a group of executives in Chicago, and he talked about his reaction as the airline's top leader two of the worst incidents aboard United flights in the last year. (I've embedded video from his remarks at the bottom of this article.)

We're talking of course about (a) the United Airlines passenger who was bloodied and dragged off a flight to make room for a United employee who needed his seat, and (b) the family whose pet dog, Kikito, died after a United flight attendant reportedly forced them to put the dog in an overhead bin on a flight from Houston to New York.

"We got it wrong last week," Munoz acknowledged about the death of Kikito, but it was his comments about the time Dr. David Dao was dragged off a flight in April 2017 that offered the most insight into how to handle difficult leadership challenges. Here are the two most important quotes, along with the six key words highlighted:

It's just the math. At any given moment there are hundreds of United planes in the air. and they are carrying tens of thousands of customers. Unfortunately that makes for countless opportunities for unforeseen events.


We had a truly horrific event last year that everyone in the world frankly heard about. It was flight 3411, with the doctor that was dragged off the plane. And people say, 'Aren't you glad that's over? Can't you wait for that thing to go away?'

That is the furthest thing from my mind and our mind. We want it front and center. We constantly want to be reminded of how things can go wrong so quickly."

As CEO of a big, consumer facing company, Munoz is trying to lead a lot of different groups of people at the same time--and often those groups don't have the same objectives.

Shareholders want maximum returns. Customers want good service and prices. Employees want fair compensation and a good working environment. And those of us who write about airlines hear from all three constituencies, all the time.

I asked United employees especially how they feel about Munoz's remarks, and at least from the sampling I heard, it seems they still support him enthusiastically. Among the comments I heard from current United employees:

  • "He's a good leader and accepts responsibility. I stand behind him!"
  • "Never forget it--take it as a learning experience a teaching moment and we should always remember common sense is not that common."
  • "Personally I feel we shouldn't dwell on the past incidents. United took responsibility and should add protocol to prevent it from future."
  • "Oscar Munoz is by far the best CEO United has ever had. He has brought people together, instilled pride and camaraderie in our company, and shown that he cares..."

Contrast this to the reaction to how Munoz reacted at first, last year, when he basically blamed the dragging incident on the passenger who was dragged. 

Here, I think he struck the right tone. He made clear he thinks these kinds of headline-grabbing, "horrific" events are the exception to the rule.

But he also acknowledged how important they are--and all but asked to be reminded of the worst of these events "constantly."

I have a feeling people will be willing to accommodate that request.

Here's video of Munoz's talk: