Tense earnings call caps a rocky six months for United CEO Munoz

Key Points
  • Wall Street analysts said leadership questions arose after the call.
  • United stock dropped 12 percent after its third-quarter report.
  • Analysts question the airline's ability to grow as costs rise.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz (L) and United Airlines President Scott Kirby prepare to testify before the H
Getty Images

In the just over two years since he took the helm at United Airlines' parent company, Oscar Munoz has survived a heart attack and heart replacement, faced a board fight and suffered a public relations disaster after the violent dragging of a passenger off one of its contracted flights to make room for commuting crew. The incident and Munoz's botched apology sparked public outrage.

The company's stock is up around 5 percent since Munoz, a former railroad executive, took over in September 2015.

But investors' confidence in the company appeared to fade during a tense earnings call on Thursday. Executives on the call, including Munoz, repeatedly declined to provide an outlook for next year as the airline faces higher fuel and other costs as well as competition from low-cost carriers, which United's president said had offered fares as low as $10.

One of the airline's strategies to fight the cheap-seat competitors was to boost its flying capacity. It also introduced a no-frills basic economy product to go head-to-head with the low-cost airlines. At the same time, it's courting well-heeled flyers with its new Polaris business class cabin, but it hasn't yet been rolled out widely.

United's stock tumbled more than 12 percent after the company's report.

"I just need a little more time," Munoz said on the call, according to a FactSet transcript. "We've always been about proof, not promise. And so right now I'm a little bit more promising and the proof will come as we get more into the details of this."

Wall Street analysts lowered profit forecasts after the airline's report and some brought up questions about a change in management.

"Prior to the 3Q17 earnings call, we had heard rumblings from the investment community about another potential management change at United Continental," wrote Cowen & Co. analysts. "Post the 3Q17 call today, they aren't rumblings, but full fledged screams, and open discussion."

In a note, Stifel asked: "Is this a catalyst for management change? That's the #1 question we've received today."

Deutsche Bank raised its forecast for fourth-quarter earnings after the company beat profit expectations for the three months ended in September but lowered 2018 forecasts due to higher expected costs.

The stock move was "overdone," he added, keeping a buy rating on the shares, but added: "the risk is that [United] is in the penalty box until we get more clarity."

On Friday, United shares ended the day 0.2 percent higher.

The incident capped a particularly rough half-year for Munoz, who has been left scrambling to recover faith from both passengers and investors.

Following the viral video in April of the dragging of passenger David Dao, with whom the airline settled, United unveiled a series of measures, including higher compensation for bumped travelers, which appears to be bearing fruit.

The airline is now tasked with providing more clarity on how it expects 2018 to shape up.

"Any future dollar targets will likely be met with more skepticism" than after United's 2016 investor day, analyst Savanthi Syth at Raymond James wrote in a note.