Only two months and change after having undergone a heart transplant, Oscar Munoz returned full time in March 2016 to his role as CEO of United Airlines.
Since then, he has continued the unlikely turnaround of United, a feat made more extraordinary given his health crisis just six weeks after he took on the airline’s top job.
An excellent leader who understands the value of PR, Munoz’s ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline, and get them to rally behind it, are key reasons PRWeek’s editors have named him 2017 Communicator of the Year.
Historically, United, the world’s third-largest airline, has lagged behind its main rivals, American and Delta. But in 2016, the Chicago-based company’s stock price gained an impressive 27% over the year prior. In addition, the airline also had its "best full-year on-time performance" in history.
Critical to its success has been United’s ability to reach new contracts with all union groups, most well ahead of deadlines, helping to curtail customer service problems caused by disgruntled workers that had long plagued the airline. A lot of the credit went to Munoz. He won praise from union bosses for his easy rapport with shop-floor workers, a rarity in any industry.
Employee distrust and discontent was at a high for United when Munoz landed in the top job in September 2015. Its last CEO, Jeff Smisek, abruptly resigned in connection to a federal investigation that he made quid pro quo exchanges with public officials. Media noted it was another failure for the company following its problematic merger with Continental five years earlier that still hadn’t bedded down.
Munoz had a daunting task ahead of him. He climbed the corporate ranks in finance (PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and AT&T), before being named president of railroad operator CSX and then United. That he has connected so well with the airline’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and other workers is perhaps because of his blue-collar roots — his father was a union meat cutter.
Also, he hasn’t been shy opening up to staff about his heart attack — that led to his January transplant, nor with media either. He invited Fortune to follow him on the job; the access resulted in a highly positive feature.
Under Munoz’s vision for the brand, it hired Jim Olson in February 2016 as SVP, corporate comms, who joined the brand from Starbucks. United also hired its first chief storyteller and MD of digital engagement, Dana Brooks Reinglass. It also launched UnitedAirtime, a platform for dialogue between Munoz, staff, and customers, and held an internal leadership conference for more than 700 employees.