Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner will leave Continental AirlinesCAL at year-end to return to the private-equity business and will be replaced by company president Jeff Smisek.
Continental, the nation's fourth-largest airline, announced the change late Thursday. Kellner, 50, has spent 14 years at Continental, including the last five as CEO.
In one of his last achievements, the company this month won antitrust immunity from federal officials for its plan to work closely with United Airlines and other partners in setting prices and schedules for international service.
"It is the right time for this transition," Kellner said, citing the antitrust immunity, which he said "will allow us to continue as an effective global competitor."
Smisek, 54, will take over both Kellner's jobs on Jan. 1. He has been president and chief operating officer.
Smisek has been responsible for overseeing flight operations, maintenance, labor relations and other duties. A corporate finance and securities lawyer, he joined the airline in 1995 as general counsel and was promoted to president in 2004 and chief operating officer in 2008.
Henry Meyer, the lead director on Continental's board, said it was Kellner's decision to leave.
Kellner will lead a new Houston-based private investment firm called Emerald Creek Group.
Before joining the airline, Kellner was executive vice president and chief financial officer of American Savings Bank, owned by a member of the Bass family investors in Texas. He had also been CFO of real estate and construction firm The Koll Co.