September 10, 2015 / 9:29 AM / in 2 years

New United Continental chief moves to calm investors, employees

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

(Reuters) - One day after ousting its chief executive, United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL.N) and its new boss, Oscar Munoz, moved to reassure shareholders and employees that the company is stable.

The airline also got a boost on Wednesday after acting Chief Financial Officer Gerry Laderman said at an investor conference that United is on track to save $1 billion in annual non-fuel costs by next year and would complete a $1 billion share buyback nearly two years ahead of schedule. UAL told investors it would return $4 billion to shareholders by 2017.

Analysts gave a thumbs up to leadership change, and the company’s shares rose, after falling as much as 2 percent in extended trading Tuesday. UAL shares closed slightly higher as broader indexes fell by more than 1 percent.

The stock slumped Tuesday after the airline surprised investors with the announcement that Chief Executive Jeff Smisek

and two other senior executives were leaving the company in connection with a federal probe involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In February, the carrier said it had opened an internal investigation into its relationship with David Samson, a former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, after it learned of a federal probe.

Media reports have said the probe focuses on whether United added direct flights to Columbia, South Carolina, from Newark to accommodate Samson, who has a home near the city. A spokeswoman for Samson’s lawyers declined to comment.

The route was canceled after Samson resigned in early 2014 following news of a separate federal probe into the potential conflict of interest between his role as port authority chairman and his private law firm.

United said Smisek could not be reached for comment. The company’s general counsel Brett Hart declined to discuss the probe during a call with analysts Tuesday.

The investigation of UAL and Samson is one of many probes stemming from the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, in which aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were accused of engineering traffic jams on the busy George Washington Bridge to New York City to punish a local politician. Christie, now competing in the crowded Republican presidential field, told CNN Wednesday “the fact is when you have 60,000 people working for you, there are going to be occasions where someone doesn’t hold up that standard. I don’t know if this is one of those instances or not.”

OPERATIONAL, LABOR CHALLENGES

The federal probe is only one challenge facing Munoz, 56, who left CSX Corp CSX.N as president and chief operating officer to lead UAL.

Under Smisek, United lagged on financial and operational performance, was dogged by computer outages that stranded passengers and recently posted the worst on-time record among major U.S. carriers.

Munoz must now convince shareholders that UAL can make faster progress to narrow the gap in financial and operating performance with rivals such as Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N). He also faces a unionized workforce that had difficult relations with management under Smisek.

Workers protested at shareholders meetings and called for his ouster over the failure to reach combined labor contracts for flight attendants and mechanics.

On Wednesday, Munoz told the company’s employees in a letter that he would meet with as many workers as possible and “hear about operations directly from you.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, recalled a joint union-management press conference in May. In a small waiting room before the event, “there was no effort on the part of Smisek to interact with me or any of the other union leaders,” Nelson recalled.

“We are overjoyed, quite frankly, that the cloud of Smisek’s leadership has been lifted,” she said.

David Bourne, director of the airline division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Wednesday he was “very, very happy” with the choice of Munoz because of his rail background. Bourne said he had a “rocky start” with Smisek when he initially proposed outsourcing ground service operations at several airports including Newark.

“We said, ‘Do you want a war?'” he said. “We had a talk, we hit it off, I don’t know why. From that point on we were able to get things done.”

Investors and analysts said Munoz’s record at CSX was reassuring. Munoz “helped transform the railroad into an industry leader in customer focus, reliability and financial performance,” said CRT Capital Group analyst Michael Derchin. “These are major priorities for UAL, in our opinion.”

Analysts were also pleased that the new CEO was familiar with the airline due to long service on United’s board.

“We believe Mr. Munoz already knows the inherent potential and key investor concerns regarding the company,” said Evercore ISI analyst Duane Pfennigwerth. “We were encouraged to hear him speak directly to the integration challenges that United has faced and improving customer service as a priority.”

Additional reporting Nick Carey, Daniel Bases. Writing by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Bernard Orr and Joseph White

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