Christine Ourmières-Widener has been in position at TAP Air Portugal for just a matter of days. Nonetheless, she is already getting to grips with the challenges facing her in her new role. Transformation, reorganization and a swathe of employee dismissals beckon, but she’s keen to listen and learn to form a plan for the future.
Challenges for TAP’s new CEO
Christine Ourmières-Widener was announced as the new CEO for TAP Portugal at the beginning of June. Chosen by the government to lead the airline through its restructuring, she was interviewed for FlightPlan just days into her job, as she noted,
“I’ve been in this position of leading TAP Air Portugal for about 10 days, so it’s early days.”
Early days indeed, but Ourmières-Widener is an experienced hand in the aviation business. Having started her career with Air France, she has also been CEO of Irish airline CityJet. Most recently, she was CEO of UK regional airline Flybe, a position from which she resigned amid financial difficulties in May 2019.
But as the newly appointed CEO has been tasked with turning around the fortunes of TAP Portugal. The airline was approved for a €3.2 billion ($3.8 billion) bailout from the Portuguese government, but only on the condition it undertakes a significant restructuring. Ourmières-Widener discussed the challenges she is facing, noting,
“I think that the challenges for us are the challenges of the industry in general. We are still in a difficult position. The borders are not all open and the process needing to be understood and deployed for our passengers to be able to travel are very difficult and difficult to understand.
“I think that I’m arriving in a position is still in a very difficult situation for our industry, with some additional challenges because we have now to reorganise the organisation for hopefully a rise in the traffic again.”
While the challenges that are facing the industry are still acute, Ourmières-Widener has more on her plate than just border restrictions and confusing travel policies.
A difficult restructuring
The government unveiled its overhaul plan for TAP back in December 2020. Within the restructuring was the loss of 2,000 jobs by 2022, as well as pay cuts of as much as 25% for those workers who stay. It was submitted to the European Commission for approval, but Ourmières-Widener says that approval is yet to come.
“At TAP Air Portugal, we are in a situation we are still waiting for the EU approval of our restructuring plans,” she said.
But the airline is pressing on with collective dismissal plans, and is coming up against strong opposition from the workers’ unions. In February, the pilots’ union, The Sindicato dos Pilotos da Aviação Civil (SPAC), voted to ratify an emergency agreement, but discussions are still ongoing with other Union representatives. Ourmières-Widener commented,
“Like many airlines today, we launched the last step of our collective dismissal plan. We will see a number of colleagues leaving us in order to reach as a total amount of 2,000 colleagues who are leaving. It’s a difficult time and a difficult decision.”
In total, the airline is expected to let go of 500 pilots, 750 cabin crew, 450 maintenance and engineering workers, and 250 staff from other areas of the business. The fleet will be reduced from the current 108 aircraft to 88.
A listening phase
The new CEO is acutely aware that the task ahead is a difficult one, but she’s taking her time to make the right decisions as she goes. She noted that, although things do need to happen in TAP with some pace, she’s currently in a listening phase, learning from those who have been with the airline the longest. She said,
“When you arrive in a new position, you need to take the time to listen. After 10 days, I need more time to listen. Because most of the time some solutions are absolutely known by your employees, your partners, so I’ve been spending these first days to listen and I’m not finished yet.”
It’s going to be a tough few months for TAP Portugal and Christine Ourmières-Widener. Let’s hope she’s the right person to lead TAP back to a profitable future.