August 16, 2018

Air Canada COO named as Air France-KLM CEO

Ben Smith, a key architect in Air Canada’s turnaround and second-in-command at the flag carrier, has been named as chief executive officer (CEO) at Air France-KLM.

Smith, who will leave his job as chief operating officer (COO), had been the clear front-runner to replace Calin Rovinescu as the next CEO of Air Canada.

He departs after playing a major role alongside Rovinescu in the airline’s turnaround after the 2008-09 recession and the carrier’s trip through creditor protection earlier in the 2000s.

Air Canada has in recent years reported the highest profits in its 80-year history.

Smith began his airline career in 1990 as a unionised sales and customer service agent at Air Ontario, a regional carrier that was owned by Air Canada.

He left in 1993 to launch a travel agency that he owned and operated for nine years before returning to Air Canada in 2002 as managing director of operations at the carrier’s low-cost subsidiary Tango.

He served in a variety of roles at Air Canada, including president and CEO of Air Canada Vacations, and in 2009 was appointed head of a team developing ways for the airline to rebound from the effects of the 2008-09 fiscal crisis.

Smith was appointed as president of passenger airlines in 2014, a new position at Air Canada – and a clear indication that he was the leading candidate to succeed Rovinescu.

A key part of his years as a senior executive were spent leading negotiations with pilots, flight attendants and airport staff that have helped change the culture at the airline after a series of strikes and other disruptions, giving it labour peace into the 2020s.

Air France-KLM faces a host of challenges, the most pressing of which is labour strife that led to more than two weeks of strikes at Air France this year and cost Smith’s predecessor Jean-Marc Janaillac his job when he said he would resign if Air France employees voted down a 7% wage increase over four years.

They did.

Major trade unions at Air France-KLM have issued a joint statement to protest the choice of a non-French CEO.

The French state has a 14% stake in Air France-KLM, while Delta Airlines and China Eastern Airlines each hold 8.8%.