The board at Air France-KLM has just appointed Benjamin Smith as the new CEO Air France. He’ll step up to the plate on September 30, 2018, if not sooner. But who is the man willing to take the top job. After all this role does comes with some extra baggage. And as the executive team found out back in 2015, it’s a job, which can literally cost you your shirt.
The past few years have been good to the major European carriers. After the 2008 slump, holiday makers and business travellers have steadily been taking to the skies once more. Most have taken advantage of this upturn, however, Air France has been the exception to the rule. Unhappy workers and industrial action have cost the carrier hundreds of millions of euros. Unfavourable news headlines have hit it hard too. So can Benjamin Smith win where others have lost? Can he turn around Air France’s fortunes?
Who is Benjamin Smith?
Smith is the Air Canada old COO. He’s a double threat in terms of airline management being both a seriously shrew businessman and a plane geek. While neither side of his personality will guarantee him success at Air France, the combination of the two just might.
When employees stormed the board meeting of Air France back in 2015 and symbolically tore the shirts off the men’s backs, their beef was clear. Deciding from your desk to approve 2,900 redundancies involving 1,700 ground staff, 900 cabin crew and 300 pilots, was a sign of being out of the loop. Employees also argued it was untenable – the restructuring would never work. Here at least, Smith knows what he’s talking about. The Air France new CEO knows his onions. He can rattle of aircraft specs with the best of them and can crunch the numbers too.
This served him very well at Air Canada. The North American airline faced down the unions numerous times and Smith always rolled up his sleeves to do the ‘man of the people’ role very well. This experience should stand him in good stead as Air France new CEO. At Air Canada, Smith rose up through the ranks – always a good move when dealing with unions. But we’ll have to see if this is enough at Air France.
He’s also a much more levelled headed business executive than others. He understands how much strikes and bad press can cost an airline and will take these factors into account when designing new inniatives. Most importantly, he recognises that employees rather than potential customers, are an airlines’ greatest asset.
No last minute panic deal at Air France
What’s most surprising in this story it that Ben Smith actually took the job. And in the end, that might be the deciding factor in his success. This new role won’t be a cakewalk, even for him. His predecessor, Jean-Marc Janaillac, quit as CEO of Air France-KLM back in May leaving many unresolved issues behind him.
So, it looks like Ben Smith really wants the job and the challenges. Perhaps he can even convince employees that he’s on their side. Let’s just hope he brings his gym shoes because he’ll need to hit the ground running. Air France unions are currently considering beginning yet more strikes on Aug. 27.