Roller Kirby: American’s esteemed president joins United, amid other big happenings at U.S. carriers

Roller Kirby American’s esteemed president joins United, amid other big happenings at U.S. carriersNapoléon Bonaparte resigns as French emperor to command the English army. Steve Jobs leaves Apple to run Microsoft. American Airlines President Scott Kirby steps aside and quickly becomes president of United. All three sound equally absurd.

But one is now true. As the airline world was astonished to learn, United Airlines finalized a grand rebuilding of its executive team with a hire for the ages: Kirby, the longtime right-hand man to American CEO Doug Parker dating back to their days at America West, which engineered a takeover of US Airways, which then engineered a merger with American. United’s newish CEO Oscar Munoz clearly concluded having a No. 2 widely regarded as among the best minds in the industry is an opportunity, not a threat to his reign.

The news is perhaps slightly less surprising in the context of another event earlier this year: a shareholder uprising at United, which resulted in new board members. Among them: PAR Capital’s Ed Shapiro, whose links to Kirby date back decades—PAR owned part of America West and helped finance its US Airways deal. Unknown to the rest of the industry, Kirby was becoming available after what American later called “conversations regarding career expectations and the marketability of [American’s] executives.” The airline apparently felt it couldn’t assure Kirby he would someday become CEO without risking the flight of other key executives, perhaps including Robert Isom, who succeeded Kirby as president, and Kirby wouldn’t stay long without that assurance. Clearly, somebody suggested to Munoz that he call Kirby.

Kirby is joined, importantly, by two other prominent new hires with a cache of prized competitive intelligence: former Allegiant president Andrew Levy (as CFO) and former Boston Consulting Group airline consultant Julia Haywood (as chief commercial officer). Levy, like Kirby, has longtime links to PAR, which was among the financiers that backed Allegiant’s ascendance to the top of profitability rankings. Anybody who wondered what the shareholder activism had really accomplished got their answer as August drew to a close— industry all-stars had joined United’s team.
United’s star-studded executive recruitment followed an eventful second quarter earnings season for the U.S. airline sector, which moves closer to the off…

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