In Light of United's Overbooking Fiasco, Who's Leading the Legal Department?

With customers threatening to boycott the airline, lawmakers questioning the incident and the U.S. Department of Transportation “reviewing” whether the airline complied with oversales rules, there’s no doubt that the legal department is wrapped up in managing the company’s legal and reputational risks right now.

Brett Hart, general counsel to United Airlines (2014). (Courtesy photo.)

United Airlines Inc. continues to face criticism related to videos showing a passenger being dragged off one of its flights after the passenger was asked to give up his seat and he refused to leave.

With customers threatening to boycott the airline, lawmakers questioning the incident and the U.S. Department of Transportation “reviewing” whether the airline complied with oversales rules, there’s no doubt that the legal department is wrapped up in managing the company’s legal and reputational risks right now.

At the center of United’s legal department is executive vice president and general counsel Brett Hart. The company has relied heavily on Hart since he joined in 2010 as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. In 2015, for instance, when CEO Oscar Munoz suffered a heart attack and went on medical leave, Hart stepped in as acting CEO.

Hart, who did not immediately respond to request for comment, held this role from October 2015 to March 2016.

“Brett has taken on increasing responsibility beyond general counsel over the last few years in the operations and customer-facing areas of the company,” Henry Meyer III, then-nonexecutive chairman of the board at United, said at the time of Hart’s appointment. “I am confident in his ability to continue to implement the company's strategy and Oscar's mission of bringing United's people together around the shared purpose of becoming the best airline for our customers and employees.”

In an interview with Bloomberg LP just a few months after taking over for Munoz, Hart discussed how the company was turning around after problems followed the 2010 merger of Continental Airlines and United Airlines and top company executives resigned in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

“People see the planes coming in and going out on time,” Hart told Bloomberg, which described the general counsel as “soft-spoken and courteously circumspect.” Hart continued: “Employees’ interactions with customers are different. Our customers’ response to the service is improving. People are saying, ‘You know, this feels like a new day.’”

Hart was also put in charge of customer service within the company at a time when the airline giant was ranked among the worst in terms of customer satisfaction, according to a View From the Wing 2015 blog article.

Prior to joining United, Hart rose through the ranks at Sara Lee Corp., joining in the early 2000s as assistant general counsel and ultimately assuming the role of executive vice president and general counsel in 2009. He was also a partner at the Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal firm in Chicago and served as special assistant to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Originally published on Corporate Counsel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Contributing Author

Jennifer Williams-Alvarez

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