Last night, I read an interesting article by the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), about Emirates reaching to their 30 year anniversary. While normally these articles are just interesting to read, but not terribly striking, this one did.
The specific part that struck me was this statement:
The switch from Dubai International to Dubai World will probably occur after another change: the retirement of president Sir Tim Clark. The story of Emirates is inextricably tied to Sir Tim and his late predecessor, Sir Maurice Flanagan. Emirates has been their life achievement, and the airline would have been different without them. Achieving Emirates’ growth meant putting aside other interests. Sir Maurice took up poetry, but he never strayed far from his old stomping group. A collection of his poems includes verses on Dubai duty free, airport waiting areas and landing in Colombo.
When asked about retirement, Sir Tim said, “I will go to all the places I’ve been to but never seen.” His list of such places will probably grow; no date has been set but it seems a few years away and in his own timeframe, before the airport switch next decade.
The immediate challenge of a handover is to find someone to replace Sir Tim, although some are quick to point to CCO Thierry Antinori. flydubai CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith is suggested to be very capable of running the airline he used to work for, but is content with his quiet achiever of a LCC. The next challenge is to smooth the inevitable management change and build leadership cultivation and succession planning. Emirates has been centralised under Sir Tim. He has been stretched, and Emirates’ future size necessitates spreading the workload and external relations; it is mostly Sir Tim who appears in the press. After operating under the same leadership team for 30 years, changes are inevitable. (Emphasis mine)
So reading this, I began to think: How many other airlines, brands, are inextricably tied to their leader? Off the cuff, here’s what I came up with:
- Akbar al Baker – Qatar Airways – Lets be honest, al Baker is very outspoken. Moreso than Sr Tim. He’s been the Chief Executive Officer of Qatar Airways for nearly 20 years. He definitively leaves his indelible touch on Qatar Airways.
- Willie Walsh – International Airlines Group – Walsh oversaw the merger of British Airways with Iberia, and is likely to oversea the takeover of Aer Lingus, creating a rather significant group of airlines. Further, he is outspoken on a variety of issues, perhaps, the most notable, being Heathrow’s Third Runway, (which makes sense, since he’s trying to take over as many slots as he can).
- Sir Richard Branson – Virgin Group – Branson has launched businesses in many markets, not just the travel market. He’s been involved with Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Blue (now named Virgin Australia, which I’ll be flying later today), among others. Virgin America and the now defunct Virgin Nigeria also were related. In fact, there are many more Virgin brands to name. If I were to select an aviation figure I’d most like to emulate, I’d probably offer up Sir Richard, partly because so far as I can tell, he’s pretty darned well rounded, and quite successful, besides, it’d be cool to be knighted–I mean, could you imagine: “Sir Trevor”? Sounds cool, right?!
The airline industry is just a microcosm. But it is still truly interesting to see how a strong, charismatic Chief Executive, can really become an airline’s brand. Many cheered when Jeff Smisek was outed as United’s chairman. Many look back to the time of Bob Crandall’s leadership of American, or Gordon Bethune’s leadership of Continental, and Herb Kelleher’s leadership of Southwest. These were all “titans” of the airline industry. But some were more than just figureheads. Some embodied their brands so much that it was impossible to separate the two. I would argue there are still some that exist today, inseparable from their brands, because the leader worked that hard, and was that committed. Wow.