January 7, 2016 / 9:39 PM / 2 years ago

United Air, doctors say CEO recovering well after heart transplant

(Reuters) - United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL.N) said on Thursday that Chief Executive Oscar Munoz was recovering well the day after a heart transplant that raised concerns about how long the second-largest U.S. airline might be without its top executive.

Customers of United wait in line to check in at Newark International airport in New Jersey, November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Munoz, 57, has been on medical leave since suffering a heart attack in October. United said on Wednesday his previously expected first-quarter return may be delayed until the beginning of the second quarter.

Brett Hart, the carrier’s general counsel, has run the airline in the interim.

“The patient’s early course has been excellent, and the transplanted heart is functioning very well,” Duc Pham, director of the Northwestern Medicine Heart Transplant Program, said in the United statement.

For months, United has aimed to allay concern that management shake-ups had left an inexperienced team of executives running its business.

Munoz became CEO in September after predecessor Jeff Smisek resigned following a probe into United’s relationship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In Munoz’s absence, the airline has pursued the agenda he outlined in his month on the job. It struck tentative contract deals to rebuild workers’ morale and improved on-time performance to boost customer satisfaction, lowest among rivals in J.D. Power’s 2015 ranking.

Shares fell nearly 5 percent on Thursday.

“We hope (United) will outline some succession planning soon,” S&P Capital IQ analyst Jim Corridore said in a research note on Thursday. “We see this issue as a potential overhang on the shares.”

United’s board of directors will closely monitor Munoz’s progress, the board chairman said in the statement.

In a separate regulatory filing Wednesday, United said Munoz will earn $1.25 million per year initially, as well as a $5.2 million cash signing bonus and a long-term incentive award, worth at least $10.5 million. United and Munoz entered into the employment agreement on Dec. 31.

Munoz’s health had improved before Wednesday’s transplant with the aid of an implanted medical device, and he visited employees and participated in company meetings since early December, United said in the press release.

It added: “A transplant was considered to be preferable to long-term reliance on the implanted device and was not the result of a setback in his recovery.”

About 88 percent of people who have a heart transplant survive the first year following surgery, and 75 percent survive after five years, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman

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