Editors' pick: Originally published March 10.

Nearly everybody likes Gordon Bethune. That doesn't mean he's the right guy to become chairman of United Continental  (UAL - Get Report) .

Hedge funds Altimeter Capital and PAR Capital, which hold 7% of United stock, said Tuesday they want seats on the United board, want Bethune to be chairman and want to turn United around.

Reality check: United already is turning around, or at least seems to be. Yes, that's hard to believe, given that United has had multiple supposed turnarounds this century. During the recently ended Jeff Smisek era, a turnaround was promised on nearly every quarterly earnings call.

This time feels different.

Did anyone even notice that on Tuesday, the same day the hedge funds elected to publicly surface, United announced it will launch the first-ever nonstop service by a U.S. airline to Hangzhou, China, using a Boeing 787-9?

Hangzhou will become United's fifth China destination and 14th Asia Pacific destination from San Francisco. The route amalgamates the world's most advanced aircraft, the best West Coast hub and aspirational route planning, as United continues the U.S. airline industry's most dramatic hub transition in three decades.

Must we pause here for a spat over board seats? At a time when United directors, after decades of failure, have finally found a CEO employees can like?

That CEO is Oscar Munoz, the appealing star of a six-month soap opera. Hired in September, he suffered a heart attack in October, got a heart transplant in January and enthusiastically returned to work within weeks.

Since his arrival, Munoz has tried to fix everything -- labor relations, operational performance, customer service, and the fleet -- and has made progress. (Some of these efforts began during Smisek's tenure.) He is a breath of fresh air blowing into a musty closet full of failed CEOs.

In 2010, the chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association said that of the seven United CEOs in the preceding 25 years, Stephen Wolf was the only one who "left the company better than he found it." Wolf left in 1994.

On Tuesday, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, went farther. She said, "Oscar Munoz is shaping up to be the best CEO at United Airlines since William Patterson." Patterson left in 1966. Just for reference, among many achievements, Patterson is credited with starting the flight attendant profession.

Now let us briefly review the career of Bethune, understanding that the board chairman is technically the CEO's boss.


"Mr. Bethune could be a disruptive force," said S&P Global Market Intelligence analyst Jim Corridore. "{But} he is a seasoned executive with great skill."

Bethune started his aviation career as a Navy airplane mechanic. Afterwards, he worked at airlines Braniff, Western, Piedmont, Boeing, Continental, and Aloha. As far as can be determined, he did well at every stop. He started as Continental CEO in 1994 and left in 2004. Published reports attributed his departure to frequent clashes with board Chairman David Bonderman.

In 1997, while covering US Airways for The Charlotte Observer, I wrote a story about how Bethune had picked three men from US Airways predecessor Piedmont for top jobs at Continental. This quartet was known as "the Piedmont mafia."

`When I got here this place was dying,'' Bethune told me. "We say the sickest patients need the best doctors. So I hired {these guys.}"

Bethune said he had shaken things up after joining Piedmont in 1984. "I had rough edges in those days,'' he said. "They weren't used to people like me, with the Navy language, and being the only guy brought in from the outside. I probably ruffled some feathers. But with some guys, you have to drop-kick them in the butt a bit.''

USAir acquired Piedmont in 1989. Bethune left quickly, saying he couldn't fit in at USAir. "USAir got rid of the people who had talent," he said. "They ran us off. And as soon as they did that, they lost their shirt.''

I could list great Bethune quotes for five more pages. Like most reporters, I had a ball working with him. During his decade at Continental, he molded it into the best airline in America, which it remained until the United merger.

It's not politically correct to say so, but at least a portion of that success was due to Frank Lorenzo, a predecessor. Lorenzo cut costs to the bone. He also assembled assets at Newark and Houston, which became hugely profitable hubs under Bethune.

Obviously, Lorenzo didn't exactly hit it off with the workforce. And only rarely has he publicly discussed the vast, transformational impact he had on Continental and the airline industry. But he should get credit for creating a climate where a leader like Bethune could both repudiate him and flourish.

Now it's United which, like Continental in the 1990s, has assembled great assets and badly needs a leader who can get employees to buy in.

Unfortunately for Bethune, I think it found one in September.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.