New Air France-KLM CEO Faces Strikes, Dissent in the Ranks As He Takes the Helm

An Air France jet at JFK

By Paul Riegler on 17 August 2018
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It didn’t take long. Within hours of the announcement by Air France-KLM that its board had appointed Air Canada COO and president Ben Smith as CEO, union representatives fired a warning shot across the bow.

Smith, who will assume his duties no later than September 30, succeeds Jean-Marc Janaillac, who resigned in May after he failed to put an end to what seemed like an endless series of strikes at the airline.

In addition, Smith has a roadmap filled with speed bumps ahead of him as he must pacify the airline’s unions, build bridges with customers, and play catch-up with its two greatest rivals, British Airways and Lufthansa, who have already come to terms with their workers after years of devastating strikes.

“We are determined to succeed with our demands,” said Vincent Salles, co-secrétaire general of the CGT-Air France union in an interview Friday with France Info radio. “As a result, there’s a strong risk of strikes if Ben Smith can’t renew a dialog with the unions of Air France.”

Salles told France Info that its unions fear that Smith is charged with implementing plans that would cause “working conditions and wages” to “deteriorate” while expanding Air France’s low-cost carriers such as Hop at the expense of the airline’s primary brand.

National pride is also an issue.

Smith is the company’s first foreign CEO. Nine unions objected to his appointment in a statement, citing “the defense of our national airline’s interests.”

His appointment, however, was fully supported by the French government, which issued a statement saying he has its trust to transform the airline.

Meanwhile, Smith is aware of the obstacles in his path.

“I am well aware of the competitive challenges the Air France-KLM Group is facing and I am convinced that the airlines’ teams have all the strengths to succeed,” he said in a statement.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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