ATW Editor's Blog

IATA leadership transition: From TT to AdJ; al Baker, please behave

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Alexandre de Juniac’s tenure as the seventh IATA director general & CEO doesn’t begin until Sept, 1, so his presence at last week’s 72nd IATA AGM in Dublin was mostly, and appropriately, low key. But remarks he made during the closing session provided some good indications of what to expect from his agenda and the tone of his leadership.

Having been formerly approved by the IATA board of governors on the eve of the AGM, de Juniac addressed the entire delegation at its close. Shortly after, he joined a press conference with current DG Tony Tyler, AGM host Aer Lingus CEO Stephen Kavanagh and incoming chairman of the board of governors IAG CEO Willie Walsh. This was de Juniac’s only press conference during the AGM. He remains in the role as chairman and CEO of Air France-KLM Group through the end of July.

In his remarks to the delegation, de Juniac was business-like, passionate and humble. It was a pitch-perfect address that won praise from many of those I spoke to afterwards. “Above all, I am a businessman. I know how tough it can be to run an airline,” he said.  

He runs a prominent and large airline group at a time that is challenging from the general viewpoint – European legacies have the headwinds of low-cost carrier and Gulf carrier competition (and, for that matter, competition from the now profitable and bullish US majors), as well as European airspace and airport congestion, bursting-at-seams infrastructure, unfriendly and disjointed government aviation policies, and heightened security threats. And it is also challenging relative to his specific company, where labor resistance and actions have slowed Air France restructuring efforts.

So yes, de Juniac knows it’s a tough business running an airline. And in that role, it is appropriate that he has campaigned for and acted on behalf of his company.

But he made clear last week that he relishes applying his experience gained as a businessman and from his time in government to a new role where he represents an industry he loves and where it will be his job to help cut through government bureaucracies and idiosyncrasies.

“My only objective is to help you be more successful,” he said.

He was deliberately inclusive in that statement; from Sept. 1, de Juniac represents the common interests of all IATA member airlines, regardless of geographic location, ownership, alliances or views on liberalization.

It is a shame, therefore, that some – a very few – airline executives have chosen to speak publicly and negatively about the selection of de Juniac before he even gets behind the desk.

Most notable among this few was Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar al Baker. Now, we all know that al Baker enjoys his “media moments” and is never short of a quote or a pithy statement. And he has used the stage of previous AGMs to voice his dissent. Oddly, he did not do that at this AGM. Instead, he invited a few journalists to a meeting on the sidelines of the AGM, where he gave them something of a rant. To be clear – I was not invited nor attended that meeting, but a colleague shared with me a recorded transcript of the conversation. Essentially, al Baker delivered a spiteful warning to de Juniac to be careful and fair to all IATA member airlines, including the Gulf carriers.

I am on record for coming down on the side of the Gulf carriers in the US-Gulf Open Skies dispute. And I also believe that al Baker has created and runs a first-class airline, for which he deserves full credit.

But he was out of line at the AGM. For one, de Juniac deserves at least six months in the job before being publicly criticized, or for that matter praised, for his work. For two, he’s smart; he knows full well his role as IATA DG mandates him to serve all member airlines fairly. Personally, I think he’s rather looking forward to the freedom of that mandate. And for three, even if he had a case, al Baker undermined it by using foul language and delivering his message on the AGM sidelines. An unprofessional stance, especially compared with de Juniac’s polished and passionate address.

So why did al Baker shuffle to the sidelines? This is not a man who runs shy of the limelight after all.

My personal belief is that he was reined in by his close friend Walsh and maybe by Emirates Airline president Tim Clark.

Walsh’s friendship with al Baker is well recorded and affirmed by both. It’s also a business relationship now that Qatar Airways has a stake in IAG. But this year, Walsh has a dual role; beyond being a highly prominent IATA member, he was appointed chairman of the organization’s board of governors. Given his friendship with al Baker, it would have been embarrassing, if not damning, had al Baker made his nasty speech about de Juniac during the formal proceedings. So I am guessing he was told to stay quiet. Except, a bit like a certain US presidential candidate, this is a man who just can’t hold it in; so he kept his mouth closed in the auditorium but called a media roundtable and ranted.

Emirates’ Clark might also have had a hand in this, although I’m debating among myself which hand he dealt. On the surface, Clark is all British-style diplomatic charm. Behind the scenes, he can be a British-style stirrer. Did he endorse Walsh’s advice to shut up during official proceedings, but, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, encourage a go-at-it media roundtable on the AGM sidelines?

I don’t know. I’ll say that again. I don’t know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.

Meanwhile, de Juniac displayed all the hallmarks of an IATA leader fit to follow the best.  I think he’ll put his personal stamp on the job, but he will continue TT’s standards of diplomacy, fairness and dedication.

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