Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO, TAP Air Portugal says the industry recovery requires all stakeholders to be in alignment. Interview by Graham Newton.
How difficult has it been to manage day-to-day operations given ever-changing travel restrictions?
It is very difficult because it is an extremely complex situation. The biggest problem, of course, is the unpredictability. We are having new waves, new variants, and the impact is different in every country.
It is impossible for airlines or their customers to plan with any certainty.
One dimension that doesn’t often get mentioned in relation to airlines is the number of staff testing positive and having to self-isolate. Whether it is your ground staff or cabin crew, it can have a huge impact on the service you are able to provide and can have a considerable knock-on effect as you adjust network and schedules.
The European Commission also needs to keep any eye on how well the slot system is working. Airlines must never be in the position of having to fly just to maintain a slot. The importance of that cannot be overstated.
How has your strategy changed from pre-pandemic aspirations?
There is no denying that TAP Air Portugal is a much smaller airline than it was in 2019. That is a simple fact, and it is the same for most airlines.
Still, at this point in time [January 2022], I think the summer season will be positive. The suggestion is that the evolution of the virus, together with vaccinations, means that we will no longer worry about stop-start operations and airlines will be able to plan with more confidence.
Having said that, it is essential that airlines remain flexible. Not all stakeholders can adjust operations or even make decisions at the same pace. There is no point in saying we will have this many flights by this date if you don’t have your partners aligned.
Has the pandemic made governments realize the value of aviation or do the on-off travel restrictions show they have yet to understand how the industry operates and its social and economic benefits?
We have been fortunate that the Portuguese Government has supported us 100%. They understood the challenges we faced and have helped us throughout the pandemic.
But this is not only about national governments. All industry stakeholders and regulators have a different perspective, different interests, and a different balance sheet. What they think should be done and what they are able to do is extremely varied.
At the same time, other industries are shouting loudly to governments for assistance. And you also have to remember that airlines have very different business profiles, from low-cost carriers to full-service legacy carriers so their requirements are unique.
So, how governments value aviation is another complexity. There are no easy answers.
What more can aviation do to improve diversity and why is it important?
Diversity and inclusion are always important. These are not issues that have only come to the fore because of staffing problems caused by the pandemic. Everything we put in place should always consider diversity and inclusion. Airlines must keep engaging with all people.
There is no magic recipe to change the current situation in aviation. You won’t get sizeable female representation overnight, for example. It takes time and ensuring you think about diversity in everything you do.
We are seeing more women in aviation, but we are still an exception and there are not as many women as there should be.
For me, it was a challenge to be the only woman in the room. But you build resilience, and you learn to adapt and to take different approaches. Most of all, though, you must remember to be yourself.
What more must airline partners do to help airlines achieve the 2050 net-zero carbon commitment?
The industry is making a tremendous effort to be green.
But you have to remember that airlines are flying aircraft with engines that we don’t manufacture. We are flying aircraft that we don’t design or build. Nor do we have much say in how airports grow or operate or how air navigation service providers manage the skies.
Our partners are working hard and the improvements airlines need will take a lot of money. But even so, our partners must speed up their agenda. We need to go faster.
Of course, what airlines can do is reduce the weight on an aircraft and there are numerous workplace initiatives we can follow as a company. After all, sustainability isn’t only about the carbon footprint of a flight.
If you look at the United Nations’ Sustainability Goals you will realize that there are many ways to improve sustainability. These goals guide us at TAP Air Portugal. For example, we are big players in Brazil and so we take deforestation of the Amazon very seriously. We will continue to support efforts there.
What needs to happen to make sustainable aviation fuels commonplace?
SAF are another huge investment and again, this is about ensuring alignment with all industry stakeholders and urging them to match the speed of airline requirements.
Airlines need solutions that are tested and certified. We simply can’t fly on SAF without that approval. So, we have to rely on other people to improve SAF production and availability. The demand from airlines is definitely there.
Aside from environmental responsibility, what else do airlines need to do to attract the passenger of the future?
We have to be honest and say that the expectations of passengers are very low at the moment. For them, travel is a painful experience. What are the rules? What test do they need, how many, when, what paperwork? And will it all change tomorrow when they are away from home?
At the core of this problem is the way the pandemic is being managed. The first thing we need therefore is consistency in regulations at the global level.
Customers want to understand what is required. That is their main concern right now. And if another crisis emerges, they need to understand how the industry will respond. For now, they view travel processes as a risk. And for many, it is too much of a risk.
In future, that will change, and technology will play an important role. We will need to get to the point where every customer has an individual experience. Their journey will be unique to them and their requirements.
What technologies particularly excite you, whether it is for serving the customer or improving operations?
Artificial Intelligence is interesting in bringing that individual experience but all technologies on the operational side are important too, such as those improving the maintenance of aircraft.
The great thing is that technology brings data as well as improving performance. And that data will help analyses and trend identification and enable airlines to further refine the passenger experience and operations.
Passengers always expect privacy regarding their data, but surveys have shown they are willing to share that data to get a bespoke experience.
All this doesn’t mean we don’t need humans. In a difficult situation, such as the current pandemic, passengers often want to speak to a human. And it would be hard to deal with the constantly changing requirements through contactless options. Airlines must think about the service they want to provide.
Has the value of cargo been realized by airlines and what are the long-term prospects for this sector?
There is no doubt that cargo has a different reputation now.
TAP only had a belly cargo business but it became very important, and we are now in the process of converting some passenger aircraft to freighter operations. Cargo has become a serious revenue stream.
But it is important to consider the long-term prospects and what will happen to yields, the maritime industry, and so forth. That concerns me and we are looking very carefully at forecasts. We all know the industry goes in cycles, so cargo will struggle again. You can’t become too exposed.
What do you see the biggest challenges or trends in aviation over the next few years?
For TAP Air Portugal, we need to consolidate our network. We have not yet relaunched all our destinations in Brazil—that will happen in the summer—but our plan is to understand where we are strong and be stronger. There is lots of room to grow so I am optimistic about the future of our airline and the industry.
We are already seeing a lot of consolidation in the industry because it is a risk mitigator in times of crisis. Given what has happened to the industry in the last couple of years, I am sure airlines will continue to look carefully at that. TAP is a member of Star Alliance and that alliance and other codeshares will continue to be important. We are certainly studying opportunities for greater cooperation.
But nothing is certain. All airlines are restructuring, and we need to wait to see what will happen after that.
This will become an opportunistic industry and airlines will make market-by-market decisions.