Jeffery Alan "Jeff" Smisek (born 17 August 1954) is an American businessman and investor who currently serves on the board of trustees of Rice University and on the board of directors of Finch Therapeutics. Smisek previously worked in the airline industry as the chairman, president, and chief executive officer (CEO) of Continental Airlines and, later, of United Airlines.
Smisek was born in 1954. His father, Raymond, was a World War II bomber pilot. His mother, Betty, was a big-band singer with the USO. Smisek grew up on military bases around the United States and Europe until his parents permanently moved to San Antonio in 1963. In 1976, Smisek graduated from Princeton University, AB summa cum laude in Economics. He obtained a JD magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School, in 1982.
Smisek was a partner at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas, but in 1995 was persuaded by Continental's then-CEO Gordon Bethune to join Continental as general counsel to help reverse the ailing airline's fortunes. When he joined Continental, Smisek joined a carrier that was running out of cash and hurting from a work slowdown by its pilots and poor service delivered by dispirited workers who were scarred by two trips through bankruptcy. Smisek's first task at Continental was to convince financiers to let it break leases on its Airbus A300 fleet, which were bleeding the airline dry. Rather than dumping the unwanted planes on the leasing companies, Smisek found other takers for the aircraft. Smisek became one of the chief architects of Continental's dramatic turnaround. Bethune once told USA Today that Smisek was the airline’s savior. “It’s not like in the movies when some guy saves an airplane from spinning to Earth...But he engineered the salvation of our company.” In 2004, Smisek became president and was elected to Continental's board of directors. He became chief operating officer in September 2008 and CEO in January 2010.
As a wave of consolidation hit the airline industry in 2008, Smisek led negotiations to merge Continental with United Airlines. The two airlines merged in October 2010, keeping the United name, and Smisek became president, CEO and, eventually, chairman of the board. Smisek oversaw the complex merger, which sought to combine route networks, negotiate new contracts with its employee groups, and merge and update disparate IT systems. From 2010 to 2015, Smisek tripled the value of United's stock. Difficulties stemming from the merger of United and Continental led to initial complaints over customer service and employee satisfaction and problems with the integration of Continental. By late 2014 Smisek had regained the trust of Wall Street analysts after a strategy of cost cuts, share buybacks and conservative expansion of capacities. Smisek resigned from United on September 8, 2015 following accusations that the airline had attempted to influence officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Smisek was never charged with wrongdoing and instead Port Authority Chairman David Samson was convicted of a felony for impeding an airport project to coerce United Airlines to fly to an airport in South Carolina, near a home that he owned. Smisek left United Airlines with a severance payment worth $28.8 million.
In February 2017, Smisek led a $5.6 million Series A financing of Finch Therapeutics, a clinical-stage microbiome therapeutics company. Smisek also joined the board of the company which, later in 2017, began a collaboration with Takeda, merged with Crestovo, and in 2018 completed a $36 million Series B financing.