During FTE APEX Virtual Expo, various CEOs sat down for a “fireside chat” to share their thoughts on the event’s theme: Transforming air transport post-COVID-19. This article originally appeared in Expo Daily Experience. Read the full issues and register for FTE APEX Virtual Expo — the platform will remain open as a resource until January 8.
Qatar’s Customers Remain King Throughout COVID
During his conversation with BBC World News anchor and presenter Aaron Heslehurst, Qatar Airways’ Group CEO, Akbar Al Baker, highlighted that the carrier catered to hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers when other airlines stopped flying at the start of the pandemic.
Qatar Airways never reduced its number of destinations below 30 and conducted around 150 flights per week. “At a time of big difficulties for passengers, we wanted to be an airline that looked after them, served them,” says Al Baker. If that service involved flight changes or refunds, Qatar also obliged. “600,000 refunds were given and only 33,000 still remain, but that’s because those passengers have not approached us.”
While many other carriers pressed pause on food and beverage, the airline maintained its in-flight services by switching to prepackaged and single-use products delivered all on one tray to minimize contact between passengers and crew. It also removed “trivial” things like menu cards. These changes, along with the use of new tools like UVC cleaning robots, have protected passengers and crew from COVID-19. Al Baker says that “99.988 percent of people who have traveled on Qatar Airways have not in any way been exposed to the virus … and when it comes to the cabin crew, only 0.0002 percent of our cabin crew have been in contact with a positive person.”
Delta has High Hopes for Post-Vaccine Air Travel
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been steered by wise words from the company’s non-executive chairman, Francis Blake. “He said many times people think that out of crises, character is born, it’s not. Character is revealed through crisis … It’s always in the back of my mind as I’m making decisions: that you’re going to be evaluated in the future on the decisions you take today.”
This way of thinking has clearly paid dividends as Bastian revealed: “Our net promoter scores have never been higher and it’s against a discerning customer … there’s a lot of anxiety about the air travel experience. Yet at Delta our people have been reassuring, they’ve been confident about their reassurance … our customers are telling us it’s not only as good as it was in the past, it’s even better.”
Looking forward, Bastian has high hopes for spring 2021 onward, when “people are going to be inoculated at very high levels.” He stated, “The demand next year is going to be meaningfully better … The world needs us and we’re going to come back stronger than ever.”
Learning Takes Center Stage at Airbus
Education and learning are central pillars of Airbus’ commitment to sustainability. Speaking about how the OEM is looking holistically at the efficiency of its operations as well as the aircraft it creates, from its offices to its final assembly lines, CEO Jeff Knittel says: “I believe it’s a cultural mindset of continuous improvement.”
In terms of emissions-neutral aircraft, Knittel confirms: “We believe hydrogen is the best solution ultimately,” but that the journey to get there – potentially by 2035 – will be a learning curve, too.
“There’s a plan and a process to get the infrastructure in place. We call it the “airport hydrogen hub.” You start with the tugs, the buses … the infrastructure around the airports. As you build that over time, you get to the position where you can take that next step … We’ve said we need to make a decision in the next five to eight years. We have concept airplanes, we’re going to have to go to demonstrator airplanes, and as we go through that there will be a learning, and as we’re learning we can build out the infrastructure.”
Bradley D. Tilden, CEO, Alaska Airlines
On financing throughout the pandemic:
For liquidity, a billion and a half dollars is what we target. What we said to ourselves is that we want to borrow as much money as we possibly can and as soon as this is over, we want to pay it all back. We don’t want to spend it. The idea is to raise the liquidity to give us a sort of ‘war chest,’ but keep it in the bank. We’ve largely done that: our adjusted net debt, so debt minus cash, is maybe down by a couple of hundred million dollars, which given our balance sheet, is something we’re super proud of. We think that in three- or four-months’ time, our adjusted net debt will not have grown since the onset of COVID.
Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic
On what he’s learned from his team during COVID-19:
These are clichés in business, but you see them manifest so dramatically during this type of crisis. If there is a clear mission and purpose, the bus knows where to go [particularly] if you have the right people on the bus … sitting in the right seat on the bus. I’ve learned how to trust every single member of my team to do whatever was needed … in an agile way, report only when necessary, consult when necessary. Ultimately, my sense of trust has risen to a new level.
Jost Lammers, CEO, Munich Airport and president, ACI Europe
On vulnerable airports:
Even without COVID, in regular operational times, 70 percent of airports are loss-making. Our expectation is that with the crisis close to 200 airports are close to bankruptcy because they’re simply without any cash. Traffic is down 90 percent and there are still fixed costs … We are very much lobbying for the European Commission to reconsider the program for regulations for 2021 and 2022.
Unfortunately, with or without COVID we see consolidation in Europe – less airlines operating. We have strong airline partners, but fewer airlines means more negotiation power on where to place aircraft and where to grow capacity. That is a dilemma for many airports, so directives that put additional economic pressure or any additional competition elements would be the wrong way to go in the next three years.
Ben Smith, CEO, Air France-KLM
On the importance of sustainability:
The greatest pressure … is from within. A big majority of our employees want to work for companies they can be proud of. They all have kids and this is a major subject for them. They don’t want to be ashamed to work in an industry that … has a strong negative view from the public, so we have a very strong push from within to do everything we can to reduce our environmental impact.
Justin Erbacci, CEO, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA)
On the importance of innovation:
People automatically think innovation means you have to spend a lot more money; that’s not the case. There’s innovation in processes and policies and … just reimagining the way that you do everything.
When I came [to LAWA in the role of] chief innovation officer, the first thing I told people was: I hate that title. It made it seem like our group was the only one that was supposed to be innovative in the organization. [Now] we make sure that everybody pursues innovation in everything that they do. We’ve been working on that for the last four years and I really do believe that that’s helped us to be able to move faster.
Virtual Expo Connection – Event Agenda
Catch all the CEO Fireside Chats held during Virtual Expo in the event environment until January 8, 2021.