CHICAGO — Hope and change.
Those familiar political themes will echo around United Airlines over the next month as Jeff Smisek, the airline's new CEO, embarks on a barnstorming tour aimed at winning over employees and customers of the sprawling airline.
Expectations are riding high for the new United, which boasts an unparalleled global network by dint of its merger with Continental Airlines. Smisek, 56, who was Continental's CEO, envisions a carrier whose service and teamwork are unmatched.
The merger was legally completed Friday; that's when Smisek took the reins. Now he will have about 90 days to convince skeptics, said Greg Davidowitch, a United union leader. If Smisek can't get workers to buy into the new United, the goodwill and excitement engendered by the $3 billion tie-up could be overwhelmed by rancor and labor strife.
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Smisek's massive team-building mission at Chicago-based United will have to be done against the crushing pressure of combining networks and information systems, and the threat of tumult as the carrier negotiates contracts with all its employee groups.
Smisek aims to have new contracts in place by 2012, when he expects operations to be fully merged. But many United veterans are impatient to reclaim pay they gave up during its three-year bankruptcy.
If the process bogs down, Smisek could face disrupted service and angry customers, or labor wars like those that have kept US Airways and America West Airlines pilots and flight attendants at each other's throats five years after that merger closed.
"In my judgment, United can't wait that long if its goal is to become truly united," aviation consultant Robert Mann said. "The specter of a US Airways standoff circles overhead like an albatross."
If Smisek is daunted by the undertaking, he doesn't show it.
"If you are an airline geek, it doesn't get any better than this: bringing these two carriers together," Smisek told the Chicago Tribune last week. "They are the perfect marriage, the perfect fit. I think we're creating a tremendous carrier here."
Creating harmony is vitally important because this merger's benefits will come not from slashing costs but from generating new sales, attracting new customers and connecting cities, analysts said. But striking a balance is vital because satisfying labor's demands could nearly wipe out the $1 billion or so in annual benefits the merger is projected to create.
"Is it difficult? You bet. Is it complex? You bet. Will we make mistakes? Of course. We're human," Smisek said. "But as long as we act in good faith, we have tremendous prospects."
Smisek speaks from experience. He and other executives pulled Continental out of a mid-1990s tailspin by unifying a fragmented work force, a byproduct of four airline mergers, and by creating a common-sense strategic framework that Smisek plans to bring to United.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Smisek is known as a quick study who has mastered every angle of the airline business in 15 years at Continental.
"United will be well-served with him as their head," said airline analyst Darryl Jenkins, who has known Smisek for 12 years. "He'll be the most capable CEO United's had in 20 years."
United has vastly improved since 2008, when a concerned Smisek persuaded Continental's officers to nix a merger with the Chicago carrier.
And the new United isn't plagued with the financial or operational problems that beset Continental in 1995, when Smisek became the carrier's general counsel.
Smisek plans to bring Continental's business approach and people-first culture to United, as well as a cadre of senior executives who are veterans of the 1995 turnaround. He takes pride in low turnover at the carrier and smooth succession planning.
Smisek signed merger documents that will make him CEO of United on Friday. Today he'll host the first of many CEO Exchanges, question-and-answer sessions with United workers around the world.
Longtime United employees may be taken aback at first by Smisek's shoot-from-the-hip style, say people who've seen him in action. He's whip-smart, funny and seeks out dissenting views from staffers, say associates.
"There's an old saying that we use here a lot: There's no rearview mirror on the flight deck," Smisek said. "Because it doesn't matter what's behind you. If you're going 540 miles per hour, who the hell cares what's back there, right? So you need to look forward. There's nothing we can do about our past or United's past. But we can work together to create a tremendous future."