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Need I say Moores

The face of an airline

It is almost impossible to imagine Etihad Airways without James Hogan, but come July that will be a reality. How do airline brands move on when their face changes?

There are certain airlines where their CEO is almost as well known as the brand itself. Take Ryanair and Michael O’Leary, for example, or Qatar Airways and Akbar Al Baker.

I’d argue Hogan is in that group. He became head of Etihad in 2006 and has undoubtedly shaped the airline from a small (if well-funded) start-up into the Goliath that it is today. So, what happens now?

Some airlines have moved on from high-profile leadership changes very effectively, such as Herb Kelleher and his low-cost icon Southwest Airlines.

Others have done so with turbulence. Greek entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou was as synonymous with easyJet as the color orange. Since stepping down, his presence has continued to be felt as an extremely vocal shareholder. However, Carolyn McCall took the reins in 2010 and has arguably become far more associated as a face of the easyJet brand than the airline’s other leaders, Ray Webster and Andrew Harrison.

Some companies seem to keep their actual CEOs a little more out of the spotlight. For example, International Airlines Group (IAG) CEO Willie Walsh is far better known as a figure head than his immediate successor as CEO at British Airways (BA), Keith Williams, who kept a low profile. Likewise, Alex Cruz has become a lot less visible since he was promoted from Vueling CEO to become BA’s latest chief.

Another example is Virgin Atlantic, which will always be associated with its celebrity founder Richard Branson, rather than characters like Steve Ridgway and Craig Kreeger who held the top spot at the airline.

Perhaps the most entrenched name in the airline business today is Michael O’Leary. Even non-aviation people are aware of the Ryanair CEO’s antics, which have calmed a little under the ‘Always Getting Better’ niceness program.

O’Leary has already accrued 17 years as CEO of Ryanair and has been with the airline even longer, since January 1994. He has committed to remain with the Irish budget carrier until September 2019.

Responding to a question on when he might step down back in 2014, he replied: “I have always said that, from my point of view, I would be very happy to stay here for as long as what we’re doing is interesting. Over the last few years, that included resolving Aer Lingus, along with the Stansted and Dublin [airport] issues and the aircraft order. But I think the whole digital transformation and new growth at primary airports makes it a very interesting place to work for the next number of years, so I hope the board will keep me on,” he said.

Under O’Leary’s leadership, Ryanair has grown from 3 million to 121 million passengers per year. By 2024, Ryanair expects to carry 180 million passengers annually.

O’Leary previously indicated that once Ryanair became more corporate and friendly, it would be time for him to step down. Then, in the 2014 quote he said he was waiting on the digital transformation, which has moved along a lot since. Post-2019, who knows?

Ultimately, in a world where some CEOs are almost as well-known as their airline, even the most personality-centered brands find a new face with time.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@penton.com


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