United Airlines abruptly replaced its CEO as a federal investigation continued into whether the airline gave preferential treatment to the former chairman of the agency that operates the New York-area airports. United Continental Holdings says Jeffery Smisek and two other senior executives have stepped down. Federal prosecutors are probing United's ties to David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. United began a direct flight between Newark, NJ, and Columbia, SC, where Samson has a summer home, while he was chairman and ended it days after he resigned last year. United, the dominant airline at Newark Liberty International Airport, was negotiating with the Port Authority over projects at the airport at the same time.
United says the departures were the result of the federal probe and its own investigation into the matter. Executives declined to say what the investigations have found and what prompted the shake-up. In a regulatory filing, United said Smisek would get a severance payment of $4.9 million and be eligible for a bonus. Smisek, 61, will have health insurance until he's eligible for Medicare and keep flight benefits and parking privileges for the rest of his life. He gets to keep his company car. He agreed to cooperate fully with United "in the defense, prosecution, or conduct of any claims or investigations which relate to events or occurrences that transpired" while he was employed. (Read more United Airlines stories.)