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United Airlines CEO to return to work 2 months after heart transplant

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

United Continental Holdings President and CEO Oscar Munoz, who has been recuperating from a heart transplant since January, will return to work full time on March 14, the airline announced Sunday.

Munoz, 57, suffered a heart attack on Oct. 15, just six weeks into the job. On Jan. 6, he underwent a heart transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Upon his release from the hospital, Chicago-based United said Munoz was expected to return from medical leave at the end of the first quarter, or early in the second quarter.

“I am thrilled to return full time to a job and the employees I love,” Munoz said in a news release. “Since September when I became CEO, our team has been focused on our employees, improving the operation and the customer experience, and the results are starting to show.”

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He added, “Our progress isn’t just limited to the operation. Financially, we have been performing well. United’s 2015 earnings were one of the best in the company’s history, and we made significant progress shrinking the margin gap with our closest competitors, strengthening our balance sheet and returning significant cash to shareholders. United spent $1.2 billion repurchasing shares in 2015 and plans to spend $1.5 billion on share repurchases in the first quarter of 2016. We have a lot of positive momentum, but this is just the beginning. There is significant work under way and we see substantial upside yet to come.”

Munoz returns to an airline that continues to be bogged down by labor troubles.

In mid-February, United Airlines’ mechanics overwhelmingly voted to reject the company’s contract offer and authorized a strike. More than 93 percent of the ballots cast — more than 7,800 members of the Teamsters voted — opposed the contract United put in front of them in October, one that would cover 9,000 mechanics in the bargaining unit.

In a statement after the defeat, Munoz said he would “personally meet with each of our labor leaders to make sure we reach an agreement that will work for our technicians.”

On Friday, Munoz invited union leaders to meet with him in Chicago on March 14.

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Separately, the airlines remains in federal mediation with its flight attendants union to negotiate a contract for some 24,000 flight attendants at United and Continental, which merged in 2010.

United pilots overwhelmingly approved a two-year contract extension in January and the airline last month reached a tentative deal with its dispatchers.

In a news release, Henry Meyer III, chairman of United’s board, also thanked interim CEO Brett Hart, a United vice president and general counsel, for his “superb leadership as acting CEO.”

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