CHICAGO — He helmed one of Chicago’s biggest employers, and operated an airline that almost everyone has an opinion about.

Oscar Munoz took over as CEO for United Airlines in September of 2015, a time when the airline was shrinking, employees were angry, and passengers frequently found flying with United anything but friendly.

Munoz was a railroad guy without the prototypical airline experience history of previous industry leaders before joining the aviation industry. he said he realized the airline’s fractured culture after a recent merger with Continental and fraught relations with its unionized workforce needed to change.

“I think words can be empty, actions mean more anything,” Munoz said.  “I have a saying: ‘Proof, not promise.’ It stems from the fact that when you listen and learn from people, before you lead an organization, there are so many people who are going to feel a part of it.”

In a conversation with WGN’s Ben Bradley, Munoz reflected on his tenure with the airline, which included a speech he made at the Union League Club that’s a part of a new book written by Munoz, titled, “Turnaround Time.”

The turnaround of United Airlines was one that was nearly grounded several times, including early in his time with the company when he nearly died from a massive heart attack after a lakefront run.

Turns out, it was the advice of a friend who was a doctor that ended up saving his life.

“He said, immediately tell them where you are because you might not make it past the phone call,” Munoz said. “Which I thought was awfully dramatic, until I’m sitting there alone in the middle of the 40th floor in a building and realizing this feels weird.”

“It saved my life because I called,” Munoz said.

Another pivotal moment came in 2017 when a passenger was forcibly and violently removed from a United Express flight. The airline’s antiseptic statements in the hours after only fueled further outrage.

“I took it on myself,” Munoz said. “I let the policies and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing for another human being and those are the words I’ll remember forever because I came up with them myself.”

In 2020, just as Munoz was preparing a succession plan, the airline — and the world — came to a screeching halt at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve worked for United Airlines for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” A United Airlines employee said at the time.

Now-a-days, Munoz is looking for the next frontier in air travel. He currently serves on the board of Archer Aviation, a company seeking to bring electric air taxi services to Chicago, linking the downtown area with O’Hare International Airport in 2025.

“They’ll be priced at a point that’s accessible to everyone and not just the ultra-rich,” Munoz said.

As for his opinion on what should happen next in the airline industry, Munoz said the United States air traffic control system needs a major upgrade, and pointed toward flight times being longer now than they were in decades past because the network can’t keep up with current demand and technology.