Oscar Munoz suffered a major heart attack on his 38th day as CEO of United Continental in October 2015. It marked the start of a series of medical trials that, on and off, kept him sidelined for six of his first seven months at United. On Jan. 5, his birthday, Munoz received a heart transplant in an 11-hour operation and then returned to the job after an extraordinarily brief recovery of just over two months. In fact, Munoz is one of the very few CEOs of a major company to ever continue in the top job after receiving a heart transplant. “This is the craziest human-interest story ever,” says Robert Milton, who joined the United board in March at Munoz’s behest and now serves as chairman. “I took the job in part because I wanted this guy to win.”
Munoz has done more than survive. In his short tenure so far, he has ended years of labor strife by reaching new deals with the company’s four major unions, recruited away top talent from the airline’s rivals, and boosted United’s on-time arrivals. And Wall Street has taken notice: As of early November, United’s stock price had soared 44% in four months—besting fellow mega-carriers American (37%) and Delta (17%). Indeed, a comeback at United promises to substantially shift the balance of power in the $700 billion global airlines industry.
Excerpted from “A Miracle Comeback At United,” by Shawn Tully.