Skift Take

We won't speculate about the prospects of the proxy fight at United in which the dissidents have enlisted the support of former Continental CEO Gordon Bethune and online travel veterans. The timing, though, would have been more beneficial had the board battle been started under United's Jeff Smisek regime.

A United Continental Holdings official questioned the timing of the shareholder fight to elect six new members, including former Continental chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune, to the airline’s growing board lineup while one of those dissident shareholders countered “we only care about helping re-build a world-class Board and airline.”

Gerry Laderman, United’s acting CFO, used his opening sentences at the J.P. Morgan Aviation, Transportation and Industrials Conference in New York City March 8 to blast the proxy fight waged by Altimeter Capital and PAR Capital Management, which own 7.2 percent of United’s shares.

“As some of you may know by now two of our shareholders have announced their intention to launch a proxy fight,” Laderman told analysts as Teamsters representing United’s mechanics picketed outside. “We will not be discussing the proxy fight today other than to say that they are doing it at a time when management has just begun to execute on the strategy that our president and CEO Oscar Munoz has laid out.

“And, at the same time, when the board has been strengthened with three high-quality independent directors,” Laderman said.

United’s board, which the dissidents characterized as “under-qualified, ineffective and entrenched,” added three members earlier this week as a hedge against the dissidents and is considering adding another director, which would bring the tally to 16.

“Oscar will be providing more updates to shareholders as we continue to execute on his action plan,” Laderman said. “But I do want to remind everybody about the exciting things happening at United. First, Oscar’s back. You saw the news. He’s obviously been back, helping us negotiate through our new strategy but full-time back next Monday. We have been achieving top-tier operational performance. As many of you know we significantly increased our share buyback. And again the three high-quality, highly credentialed new board members that all of management is very excited to get to know and to work with.”

Brad Gerstner, who heads Altimeter Capital and is a veteran online travel investor and operator, tweeted responses to United’s public utterances about the proxy fight, noting that six prospective board members can’t control a 15- or 16-member board, and that the shareholders seek to transform the under-performing United into a “world-class” carrier.

More of Gerstner’s tweets are included in an SEC filing United made earlier today in reference to the proxy battle.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters, which represent 9,000 aircraft mechanics at United, stated they will remain neutral in the board fight until they can get more information from both sides on United’s future.

“The Teamsters have respect for how Gordon Bethune addressed labor and operational concerns when he was at Continental,” said Capt. David Bourne, director of the Teamsters Airline Division. “However, we need to look at both slates and make a decision based on whose approach will best address passenger and employee confidence in the company. United leadership, whoever shareholders choose, needs to understand that the mechanics are ready to strike. The Board needs a strategy that respects the work of employees, improves service to passengers and rewards investors with long-term growth.”

Todd Insler, chairman, United Master Executive Council, Air Line Pilots Association issued a statement in support of United that the airline posted on the investor relations section of its website.

“United’s pilots have grave concerns about the sudden attempt by two activist investors to gain effective control of United’s Board of Directors. This coup attempt, being done for their own benefit and without publicly stating their intentions for the future of the airline, unnecessarily distracts all employees from our commitment to improve customer service and grow United Airlines.”

It continued, “We are concerned that these activists will instigate a program focusing on short term gains to the detriment of United’s customers and employees.”

The dissidents stated they will file a statement with the SEC outlining their plans.

At the J.P. Morgan conference, Laderman defended improvements in United’s on-time arrivals and flight-completion factor so far in 2016.

He said the airline has made “terrific progress” in listening to and winning back the allegiances of frontline employees since Munoz, then a a United board member and railroad executive, was appointed CEO in September 2015.

Reach new heights in aviation
November 12 in Dallas
See Who's Onboard

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: united airlines

Photo credit: Interior of a United Airlines plane. United Airlines

Up Next

Loading next stories