Sohn Conference

United was 'clumsy' at first in scandal, but eventually 'got it right,' investor says

Key Points
  • Altimeter Capital Founder Brad Gerstner said United is now on the path to recovery from the public outcry after it dragged Dr. David Dao off a flight in April.
  • United Continental is Altimeter's largest holding.
  • Gerstner said the firm upped its stake amid the scandal.
Altimeter Capital CEO: United was clumsy in handling situation

One major United Continental investor told CNBC's "Halftime Report" that the company is now on the right track, after being embroiled in a public relations nightmare that began when it dragged a passenger off a flight.

"The events of the last few weeks have certainly been frustrating. We were upset by the way this went down, but I think the company has done the right things now," Brad Gerstner, founder and CEO of Altimeter Capital Management, said on Monday.

Gerstner's firm is a top holder of United shares, which constitute Altimeter's largest position as of Dec. 31. Altimeter concluded an activist campaign against United last year after United agreed to install new board members with more experience in airline operations.

In late April, United unveiled a slew of policy changes that it hopes will prevent a repeat of the public outrage that hit the company after video taken by other passengers showed Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from a plane on April 9.

Speaking at the Sohn Conference in New York, Gerstner said the airline was "clumsy" in their initial response to the incident.

"They got around to the right apology, a little too late in my estimation, but they got it right and they moved forward," Gerstner said.

Dao was a passenger on Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, which was overbooked. He and other passengers were offered $800 to give up their seats for United crew members. The airline said it will now offer as much as $10,000 to customers who volunteer to give up their seats on an overbooked flight.

The airline has since settled with Dao. As part of the deal, the settlement amount remains confidential.

One silver lining of the crisis, Gerstner said, is that it has accelerated United's path toward putting customers first. He also said Altimeter increased its stake in United when the stock briefly dipped amid the scandal.

"We tend to add more to our core holdings during periods where we think Mr. Market is not being rational," Gerstner said.

The Altimeter Capital founder explained that, historically, these incidents can be "unfortunate," but they "rarely have a lasting impact."

Gerstner pointed to the airline's earnings — for the quarter ended before the scandal — which topped Wall Street expectations. The stock has gained about 6 percent since the incident with Dao.

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