ATW Editor's Blog

Wanted: New IATA DG; must travel - French & guitar skills an advantage

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The biggest question from today’s news that Tony Tyler will retire next year from his position as IATA director general is, who will succeed him?

When Tony took up the position in 2011, succeeding Giovanni Bisignani, it was generally acknowledged that Giovanni had been the right man for the time – and he was rightly credited with shaking up IATA and turning it from something of a bureaucratic sleeper to a proactive organization that gained global political status under his leadership.

However, it was also generally agreed – and vocalized by some – that after almost 10 years in the job, a fresh approach was needed.

Enter Tony, a Brit by birth (though born in Egypt), but very much aviation’s renaissance man, with a multi-cultural viewpoint and a natural flair for bringing people together even on contentious issues. He was IATA’s first DG appointed from an Asia-Pacific airline (he was Cathay Pacific’s CEO before the transition); an important and overdue selection given that IATA chiefs had been dominated by former European carrier CEOs even as the pendulum of regional importance in global air transport swung steadily towards the Far East.

Tony also brings diplomacy and accessibility to the role, not to say an almost terrifyingly punishing work ethic. The man is on the road constantly, criss-crossing the globe to meet with airline members, lawmakers, regulators, to attend meetings and give speeches.

Most recently, I saw him deliver a speech on eco-aviation and emissions at a high-level meeting during the Paris Air Show. It was organized by French aviation organization GIFAS and there were some high-level French lawmakers in attendance. When Tony’s turn to present came, he began that speech in French – continuing quite a long time before apologizing that he had reached the limit of his French-speaking skills and needed to continue in English.  Of course, by that time, he could have given the rest of the speech in Swahili as far as the French delegation was concerned. They loved the gesture of opening in French – and, I bet, were a lot more amenable to understanding the aviation points of view on emissions.

Those of you who know Tony personally will also know that he’s a natural showman, another advantage on a global stage. When there’s disagreement at the meeting table, there’s nothing quite like having one of the leaders willing to later on stand up and sing, play guitar (or harmonica), or even do a silly kick-dance thing on stage (as he did last year at the AAPA AGM gala dinner).

But this is also a job with many industry challenges and, I imagine, a lot of frustrations. IATA is championing multiple industry causes – unnecessary and sometimes harmful “consumer” regulation; unjustified and heavy government taxes and fees on airlines; smarter security screening; and a modern distribution system are just some of the priority points being tackled. And that’s on top of the issues and task force requirements prompted by the headline-making crashes we’ve seen in the past couple of years, not least MH370’s disappearance and the shooting down of MH17.

So, who steps up and keeps the momentum going next year after Tony retires in June? Rumor has it that a couple of big-gun industry CEOs have made their interest known. But this next IATA DG transition will be sensitive for as long as the whole issue of the Gulf carriers and subsidy allegations remains as divisive as it is now. Member airlines on either side of the issue will not want to see any hint of bias toward the other side. On the one hand, this is not, of course, an IATA issue. IATA is duty-bound to represent all of its member airlines fairly, On the other hand, it’s now seen as a major issue by some of those member airlines and the IATA DG has a difficult task balancing those contradictory needs.

Having established the success of bringing in someone with an Asia-Pacific career background, does it make sense to keep pushing IATA to be more global, less European in its leadership? Given the current strength of the North American carriers, is there an American with the right skillsets and enthusiasm to be DG?

By the AGM in June 2016, we’ll know. Meanwhile, the search is on. And I bet Tony will be bought more than a few beers in Dublin (and, perhaps, play us a farewell song).

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