Using the media to
Stop being shy
We shouldn’t underestimate the external factors influencing aviation. Without the unwieldy government regulations or monopoly suppliers in the value chain, aviation would stand a better chance of sustainable profitability.
But we also have to be honest. Air transport has to take its share of the blame for these problems. The industry has been too slow, too shy, in voicing its complaints. It has lacked courage. Are we afraid of disturbing the sensitive souls of politicians? Or of ruining an airport CEO’s afternoon tea? It doesn’t matter if industry insiders know the facts. By definition, we are not the ones in charge of changing these external factors. Airlines must make their case publicly and make it loud and clear.
I became aware of this shyness while running Alitalia, but I was surprised to discover it was still the case when I joined IATA. The world had moved on but the industry and IATA’s communications policy had not. Only local and trade press attended the IATA 2002 AGM in Shanghai. And there were no outside dignitaries. Effective communications is an important part of any business but for a trade association it is essential. An association must talk with its members, with the world. Politicians should hear what it is saying loud and clear. It would be a very poor industry body if it didn’t do these things.
Despite my occasional strides into the headlines, early on in my leadership IATA didn’t have any media strategy in place. I couldn’t escape the feeling we were a ghost association, existing in our own aviation dimension, otherwise known as the trade press, but never crossing over into the real geopolitical world. Well, I intended to cross over and do some serious haunting.
At Alitalia, I understood the need for the airline to be injected into the national debate. I had a good communications team headed by Marco Zanichelli who helped me raise the airline’s profile. When I travelled, we brought press along. Getting the Italian media on board was no big deal. We were one of the biggest stories in town. But we were an international airline, so we needed an international presence. I set a challenge to get us into the New York Times and Forbes. We had a good story. Alitalia was number two in Europe, behind British Airways. We had transformed the company. The business world needed to understand how we did it and what we would do in the future. The challenge was met and eventually great articles appeared in the New York Times and Forbes. It had a very positive impact on Alitalia morale and our finances.
I was confident that IATA could, and should, be more famous.
A plane is not part of the deal
It was not necessarily a simple case of out with the old and in with the new when I shook up IATA’s internal workings. Identifying employees who were ready for a step up was also part of the equation. Consideration had to be given to those who had the potential to play an effective role in the new strategy. And the net needed to be cast wide enough to include those not immediately visible to me.
A key position for the new IATA was Corporate Communications Director. It was evident at my first AGM in 2002 in Shanghai that corporate communications was a weak link. Airlines are exposed to a lot of media attention and I knew from my experience launching OPODO that telling people about your mission and targets was an essential factor in success. Communicating information is so important in today’s world that a CEO cannot delegate the task to others. The CEO must be mediasavvy, assertive, sure of facts and not afraid to respond. The press doesn’t go for politeness. They like managers who are strong and articulate.
IATA’s communication was none of these things. It wasn’t saying anything—I guess because it didn’t have anything to say. I see something similar in many airlines today. They lack the courage to stick with an effective strategy on a daily basis and only talk through the trade press. But that attitude is indicative of the industry’s narrow thinking. It must aim higher—at the governments and the public who are aviation’s partners and passengers. That involves talking to the general press and to TV and radio stations around the world. Trade press is for specific arguments, the general press is for communication in a broader context.
My first Director of Corporate Communications at IATA, William Gaillard, left just a few months after I joined to take up an exciting new opportunity with the European Football Association (UEFA). A head hunter was recruited to find William’s replacement and we had some respectable candidates. But none fit the bill. While all had impressive biographies, they were used to large staff and large salaries. One candidate even had use of a private plane.
Around this time, SARS hit. Flights to and from China dropped 45% in June 2003 compared with June 2002. In May 2003, Cathay Pacific saw its passenger numbers fall 75%. Coming on the back of 9/11 and an economic downturn, it was an enormous blow. SARS was centred on Asia and so I turned to Tony Concil, who was based in our Tokyo country office. I asked Tony to move to Singapore and take leadership of the communications campaign. Tony had worked for All Nippon Airways for many years, was a fluent Japanese speaker and was immersed in Asian culture. He immediately showed a great sense of leadership and strength in his management style. I asked him to get more exposure with the general media but after a couple of months had no hesitation in making him the new Director of Corporate Communications. Soon enough we had built a team of people located around the world and Tony has continued to lead and show genuine team work. His appointment was a big surprise to the head hunter who had lined up many impressive names, but it sent a very positive and visible signal to the rest of the IATA staff.
Change, change, change
The circumstances surrounding the industry after 9/11 were compelling but it took a few months to develop my ideas about the story I wanted to tell. After Shanghai I asked the corporate communications department to detail the media coverage that had come out of the AGM. As I suspected, it was as if the event had never happened. There were some articles in the trade press about my clear message of change. But there was nothing in the mainstream press, apart from a couple of snippets in Geneva and Montreal about the size of a postage stamp. We couldn’t honestly claim to have won so much as an inch of newsprint. We needed to do better. Like the estate agents’ mantra of “location, location, location” we needed the whole world to know IATA and aviation was about change, change, change.
I managed to secure a slot with the BBC morning news as a way of testing the waters. Media is not as glamorous as many would think. I arrived at the central London studio early in the morning—before the sun was up. It wasn’t a problem for me as I do not sleep much. The BBC studio, located deep inside the building, was taking advantage of new technology to be economical with space. It was like doing an interview in a closet. To make matters worse, the new technology wasn’t working particularly well. I could barely hear the journalist who was broadcasting from another building. Still, it went well and they seemed happy with my unusual approach. I received a few calls of congratulations after the interview and I was happy that the industry was getting some coverage.
We had to have stories that would grab the headlines though. Narita was the first big one. Monopoly suppliers treating an industry as a cash cow and forcing prices up for consumers is always going to get air time and column inches. My shouting got me an interview with CNN while I was in Hong Kong shortly after my Tokyo trip. I could see that Tony was trying to prep me by asking questions in the car and in the elevator on the way to the studio. He didn’t even let up in the Green Room. I was glad for the preparation. Rather than focusing on Narita, the interview was broad in scope, mostly covering security issues and the industry’s financial situation.
After the interview I asked Tony how I had done. He hesitated briefly, perhaps not yet sure how honest he had to be with me, but then gave me a medium score. I was a bit surprised but he followed up quickly with a suggestion—a short brief constantly updated to help keep track of the many numbers that we had to describe the industry’s situation. The initial memo that he did evolved into a two-page bible that became a feature of my time at IATA. On those two sheets of paper, we put every number that gave a very clear and updated picture of what was happening in the industry or at a particular location. My job was to learn those facts and figures off by heart before I gave an interview. No easy task given how much those figures changed every month.
Building a communication strategy
Numbers are an important part of any media strategy. They help to tell the story. Sometimes my Italian passion led me to quote them out of context, but I feel that just made my presentations more vivid and memorable. Still, I was thankful for a communications team that kept the numbers—and my passion—in order. IATA began to gain credibility with the media for its open, factual approach and the concept of Giovanni “shouting politely” was born.
We built the media campaign around numbers that were both accurate and embarrassing for our opponents. It was easy at the outset with Narita and Toronto. And it didn’t get much more difficult to be honest. After all, if I was arguing about something it was usually because I already knew the numbers were on our side. What we learned from those two early campaigns was that the industry had a compelling message and that there was an appetite in the press for what we had to say and the way that we said it. We got straight to the point and didn’t fudge our words.
The airports provided the richest pickings—they were always the low hanging fruit. Wherever I went I could always drop in something about the airport’s profits or the increase in charges. Eventually, airports started to wise-up and prepared some counter-arguments, but there was nothing that they could do to change the numbers.
At the behest of Narita, airports did manage to get Airports Council International (ACI) to adopt an anti-IATA resolution, however. ACI members agreed not to deal with IATA. I learned they were even exchanging notes, warning each other of an impending visit by the IATA Director General. Maybe they thought this would upset me. They thought wrong. I took it as a compliment. We were upsetting the apple cart and that is always the first step in genuine change. Quite by chance, only days after the ACI resolution, we concluded a major agreement on user charges with Copenhagen Airport. Their CEO, Niels Boserup, was heavily involved with ACI, but it was too far down the line for Copenhagen to pull out. I don’t think they had any real appetite to do so anyway. To show the utter ineffectiveness of the ACI resolution, we promoted the agreement quite heavily in the media. The resolution was never invoked. It was silly and proved a complete waste of time.
These early successes energized the IATA team and I was full of ideas for accelerating the media campaign. But it’s important not to lose focus. Don’t just talk for the sake of talking. Change, change, change was the theme. Numbers were the evidence. Journalists started to respond to this approach. It gave them everything they required and they loved the candid, almost brutal approach. They realized that IATA was becoming a very different organization.
The transformation was underlined when the SARS crisis captured the world’s attention in early 2003. We used a protracted media campaign to get airports to provide airlines with $100 million in cost savings through temporary relief in charges. Asking our partners in the value chain for urgent action on costs has become a standard request in crises affecting the industry. And we took leadership in working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to restore passenger confidence in flying. Quite honestly, we started the crisis naked. At first we knew nothing of the disease. But once we were sure that thermal scanners could detect the disease in its contagious form, we had a story. And we went out all guns blazing to make sure that everybody knew. I spoke at an ASEAN Prime Minister’s conference in Bangkok to tell them to get behind scanner implementation without sending aviation an invoice. WHO backed up our message and people started flying again. It was still a bad time for the airlines but it could have been so much worse.
Internal and external confirmation
I wanted to reinforce IATA’s new attitude to media and communication. Internally, I knew it would be important for the DG to explain the reasons for change, the way forward and the setting of targets. IATA established a new corporate newsletter, In-Touch, which was effectively prepared by Judith Gilson. This provides detailed information about new projects and initiatives so staff don’t find out what IATA is doing by reading a press release. Staff should always be kept informed because it’s a key component of motivation. I always attended key moments of any internal communication session as well. And I made a point to visit country offices whenever I was in their locality. Many of them are small— no more than a handful of staff—but I enjoyed explaining our strategy and reinforcing the need for constant two-way information flows with our members. This internal work was especially important for IATA, which is a geographically diverse organization. It created the corporate glue that kept the team together and working toward the same goals.
The external confirmation came through a successful re-launch of our magazine, Airlines International. A brilliant external consultant, Graham Newton, took over as Editor and effectively coordinated messaging with our corporate communications team. There was also a relatively minor logo change. Minor, that is, in terms of the image—it was a major step forward for the association. The old IATA brand was like an unwanted Christmas present, hidden away in a drawer or gathering dust on a shelf. IATA’s new look, devised by Landor, the well-known marketing and design firm, was launched at the 60th AGM in Tokyo in 2005. Although largely unchanged from the 1947 original, the new logo incorporates a dynamic sky design to mirror the boldness of the new IATA. The approach is best summarized as “keep the trust, lose the dust”. IATA was still the industry association but one imbued with new spirit.
Star of the small screen
My first AGM as Director General was in June 2003 in Washington, D.C. After a year at IATA, it was time to show that the association had received a DNA transfusion. It was forcing change internally and externally. And it would communicate that message to the world’s media.
I put it simply and succinctly to the IATA Board prior to the Washington conference. “We always say that the world does not understand the airlines’ problems. But we are not committed or willing to spread the message around. Why are we afraid? Our value proposition is good, we have reduced ticket prices 30% in the last few years. Our safety and labour productivity figures are equally impressive. It is time to have courage. My first AGM as CEO will be show time. I want CNN there to cover my State of the Industry address and to be involved in the event itself. Every other media outlet will be invited because airline CEOs will debate the crucial industry issues on stage. We will be on every TV news show and in every national newspaper.”
There was silence in the room. From a closed door AGM to show time was probably too much for most of the Board. Leo Mullin, the CEO of Delta Air Lines who had hired me, was sitting next to me. After a few moments consideration, he said that this was a great idea. He could help with CNN and through him, we contacted Lou Dobbs. The flood gates opened and a deluge of ideas and other contacts followed.
The participants in the AGM CEO panel debate were Jeff Shane, at the time Under Secretary for Transportation in the United States, CK Cheong, Singapore Airlines CEO, Leo Mullin, Delta Airlines CEO, Jürgen Weber, Lufthansa CEO, and Herb Kelleher, Southwest CEO. That’s a great line-up and they put on a great show. Herb, always a joker, was in wonderful form. He said he had prepared with great care for the event—his first ever IATA AGM—going as far as buying an expensive Italian suit to make me happy. I appreciated the gesture but as Herb fronted the world’s most successful airline and was a business hero of mine, I wouldn’t have cared if he was there in jeans and a T-shirt. That might have been more Herb’s style anyway. He’s a man who likes to have fun, inside and outside of work. We have spent many evenings together, Herb sipping a whisky while I stuck with Coke.
Lou Dobbs was a great anchor for the debate, but a little bit precious with his requirements. He certainly raised the profile of the event, for which I am grateful, but clearly a different approach, and a less demanding anchor, would be needed in future.
Starting with the next AGM in 2004 in Singapore we began to work with the BBC. The idea was to turn the AGM into the year’s premier airline event, a place where everybody networked and the major issues were debated. Nik Gowing, BBC World’s main news presenter, took to our vision instantly. Nik moderated every AGM until 2012, each year taking the debate to a higher level. We also had Aaron Heslehurst from the BBC who always livened up proceedings with his energy and effective style. He interviewed me on stage at my final AGM in Singapore and—to everyone’s amusement—skillfully switched from showing some old photos of me during sports events, holding some guns, and my time at IATA.
I also developed a very good relationship with Richard Quest of CNN, who took over from Nik in 2012. Ever since we first crossed swords when I was at OPODO, he has led every interview with a very accusatory question. My Italian passion always rises to the bait but I think we both enjoyed this verbal jousting. Over time we became great friends. I have always admired his dedication to the industry. I remember a very cold, wet day toward the end of 2010, after the Yemen parcel bomb incident, when Richard decided to broadcast his prime time news show from our Security Conference (coincidentally running at the same time as the bomb incident). With an iPad and a satellite truck he broadcast an interview with me to the world from a very bleak, windy outdoor location. As I said, the media is not always as glamorous as you would expect.
I invested a lot of time with the media while at IATA and I don’t regret a single moment. I built media into almost every trip and I worked hard to develop a good relationship with every member of the press. You cannot expect a story from every meeting but trust builds up over time. I even went as far as constructing a small TV studio in the Geneva office so we could be fast in reacting. My excellent CFO, Bob Hutt, was concerned about the cost, but in the end it was paid for by a TV company. It has increased IATA’s visibility tremendously.
IATA averages a couple of press releases every month. On top of this I did TV and radio interviews and, depending on the subject matter, a number of related stories appear in the general press. Communication must be extensive but it must also be detailed and handled carefully. Being both tough and transparent is possible. Being readily available is essential. In February 2010, following a series of strikes and severe snow storms, I did an interview with Richard Quest outside my hotel in Berlin. It was late at night, freezing cold once again, and there was little cheer I could provide for passengers. But I answered every question and would have stood there for as long as Richard required.
Hold the front page
Of course, so prolific and many are the world’s media outlets these days that you need to prioritize. Top of our wish list in the early days were the Financial Times and The Economist. These were the right publications to brandish our no-nonsense facts and figures style.
Before I confirmed Tony Concil as Director of Corporate Communications, he spent quite a lot of time building up IATA’s presence in Europe. In the autumn of 2004, this diligent groundwork made it possible to invite The Economist’s Industry Editor, Iain Carson, to Geneva to see what the new IATA was all about. He spent a day with me and also met the key people. The following week, there was a Face Value column in The Economist. It covered the events in Tokyo, the internal reorganization and our aggressive approach to the future. I sent the article to all IATA employees as a symbol of the association’s newfound relevance. I wanted them to know IATA was fast becoming the high-level, serious organization it needed to be. It would underline the speed, passion and commitment I was demanding of them.
Through the years I maintained a good understanding with The Economist, which was always supportive of our agenda—from Simplifying the Business to the Agenda for Freedom. When the new Editor, John Micklethwait, was appointed, we did a special briefing to its editorial board. My old boss Romano Prodi was a real fan of The Economist so it was a great honour to be in its boardroom, in between sessions with European Commission President, José Manual Barosso, government ministers and other captains of industry.
During my last months in office, I went back to the same boardroom. It was déjà-vu all over again, as the saying goes. We were talking about many of the same issues—technology, liberalization, high oil prices and world crises. I made the point that it was far from the same industry. The challenges kept on coming, but they hadn’t killed us before and we were getting stronger all the time. We were making money at $110 a barrel when $25 a barrel was proving too much a decade ago. IATA taking some $55 billion in costs out of the industry had had an enormous effect.
The second publication that we put a lot of emphasis on was the Financial Times. I was in London once a month for the UK NATS Board Meeting. NATS is the United Kingdom’s air traffic manager. It became a tradition for Tony Concil and me to use these occasions to meet with journalists. Kevin Done was the FT writer responsible for transport and we developed a routine of having breakfast with him at hotels in the Holborn area. We became great friends and Kevin later helped us with our Vision 2050 initiative. He wrote many interesting stories on IATA— including a key report on the 22.6% drop in air cargo in December 2008 that first symbolized the impact of the global economic slowdown.
Just as I had done at Alitalia with the New York Times, I challenged my people to get IATA on the front page of the FT. Some said that if airlines going bust couldn’t do it then maybe we would have to murder an airport CEO. I was more positive. We eventually secured an interview with the FT on a trip to Brussels. We were trying to convince the European Commission to improve their regulation of airports. The reporter checked with the Commission and got a comment to the effect that “they were looking into it”. It was a poor response to a strong argument.
The next day, back in Geneva, there was a stir in the corporate communications office. Calls were coming in on an FT story about regulation. We were all looking for the story in the Business Section and then under European news. Suddenly, somebody let out a gasp of surprise. We were on the front page! Persistence pays off.
It wasn’t always industry issues that got IATA noticed. I’ve done a few profile pieces over the years and they always worked to our advantage. Ven Sreenivasan did an interview with me for the Business Times in Singapore. This was part of their “Raffles Conversation” series of exchanges with industry leaders. They eventually published a compilation of all the interviews. The book was put in every room at my favourite hotel in Singapore—The Raffles.
Raising IATA’s profile in North America
IATA’s presence in the United States was weak. Despite our headquarters in Montreal just across the border, we didn’t have our finger on the US pulse. Not that there was any great mystery about US thinking in the first decade of the 21st century. It was always security. It didn’t matter what else was going on—security was always priority number one, and understandably so given various terrorist outrages.
I made myself available at every opportunity—and visited frequently; simple hard work that brought a great result. Within a few years we went from obscurity to primetime on Fox TV, CNN and others. In turn that enhanced our ability to influence decisions. This became very clear from 2009 onwards in the progress that we made with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Secretary Janet Napolitano spearheaded a very different approach to security by the Obama Administration. She understood that security can only be more effective if a real partnership is built with the industry.
I was pleased with the change in attitude. Previous encounters with Secretary Napolitano’s predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, had been very disappointing. I couldn’t get them to accept that the industry approach to safety, sharing information, was also applicable to security. They saw the matter as a national issue. Discussing potential policies with outsiders wasn’t on their agenda.
After the foiled bomb plot on a Northwest flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, I invited Secretary Napolitano to visit IATA in Geneva for a meeting with key industry CEOs, not to mention a more relaxing and very pleasant dinner. That she accepted so readily was a great sign of IATA’s strength. I won’t attribute our enhanced media presence with all of this success, but I have always believed that if you are read about in the papers, then you are seen as being relevant. Ask any would-be celebrity.
ICAO learned this lesson too. After the 2004 ICAO Assembly, I did a major press briefing as had become the norm. It got my picture in the papers and my meeting with the Canadian Minister of Transport a few days later was a lot more positive thanks to my photo staring up at him from the front page of the newspaper. The new Secretary General of ICAO, Raymond Benjamin, understood that I had the Minister’s respect as soon as I walked into the room and he has been far more assertive with the media as a result. It’s a different situation for him, of course, but he is using the media as much as possible. I’m happy to see ICAO get some attention. Their good work complements IATA’s.
An eruption of truth
The power of TV really came home to me after the eruption of the Icelandic volcano in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull. I had just returned from a trip to Montreal and was immediately confronted with the news by my staff. For a few hours there seemed no obvious cause for alarm.
But during the night, I started to get phone calls in my capacity as a UK NATS board member. CEO Richard Deakin, who did a great job during the disruption, was updating me about potential problems. The volcano was his baptism of fire as he had been in the position only a couple of weeks. David McMillan, Eurocontrol Director General, and several European Ministers of Transport soon became involved in the discussions. A minor irritation was evolving into a full-blown crisis.
I was getting a lot of information from the TV news channels. Laid up with a terrible cold, the embarrassing mess unfolding hour by hour just made my temperature worse. Millions of passengers were stranded. There was no action from the European Commission. And the skies were wonderfully clear and blue.
We had a pre-scheduled meeting with a Paris media association on 19 April, five days after the initial eruption. It was meant to be a very friendly breakfast chat in the historic Café Procop in Paris. Of course, there were no flights operating. And to add insult to injury, the French railways were on strike. So I drove to Paris with Tony Concil and along the way we plotted to make some noise at the event.
We contacted CNN and the BBC to arrange interviews for the morning of 19 April, starting at 6am. I still had a terrible cold, so doing the first broadcast for CNN from a rooftop overlooking the Champs Elysées was a challenge. But I summoned up the energy and began my polite shouting. Next was the BBC over the phone, followed by five other interviews. We managed to cover the major European morning news shows before the Paris breakfast even began. And as I began my speech there, Tony was busy alerting the other press to what we were saying. Thanks to my good friend in Iceland, Sigurdur Helgason, my information was more accurate than that supplied by the air traffic controllers. He could see the volcano from his house in the country. The sedate Café Procop was transformed. By the time we finished there were TV crews practically hanging from the chandeliers. One even chased me down the street and we ended up with an impromptu interview in front of the Ritz Hotel.
I was shouting that we needed leadership. European Ministers took days just to agree a conference call, which was a complete failure to lead. And decisions were being based on theory. Every proper test showed that the ash either wasn’t there or wasn’t there in sufficient density to cause any safety issues. Closing Europe’s airspace was costing the regional economy billions and inconveniencing passengers around the world. It was the greatest European embarrassment that I have ever seen and a clear indication of the lack of leadership.
The new European Commissioner for Transport, Siim Kallas, wasn’t happy with me. But somebody had to say it. It was the truth. Fortunately, the relationship with Commissioner Kallas improved after we found common ground on some Single European Sky issues at the Davos summit in early 2011. We’ve since become good friends.
But the media lesson from my road trip was clear. I drove thousands of kilometres in two days to deliver the airline message in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Given that over 400 journalists now attend our AGM and over 100 visit Geneva for the Global Media Day, it is fair to say the communication efforts proved worthwhile.
As Director General of IATA I gave many speeches. At the beginning it wasn’t easy. English is not my first language. I also had to get used to standing in front of an audience of a thousand people and telling the brutal truth—even if it embarrassed my hosts.
But after Narita, the reality started to dawn on me. The governments, airports and other stakeholders listening were more scared than I was. They knew their guilty business secrets were about to become public knowledge.
When it comes to speeches, I first outline the broad message to my team and indicate how far I may wish to go in exploding some established practices. It is essential to make an impression. If you are going to do an event, do it properly, so that people remember. Using the numerous tools now available from Power Point to videos helps to capture attention. But they must be used wisely. I see little value in endless slides of charts and text-heavy bullet points, which you simply repeat in your speech. They are boring and they don’t tell a story.
But an image can make a big impression while you’re hammering home the facts. It underlines the central point and cements your argument in the audience’s mind. We had a very talented young designer at IATA, Richard McCausland. He developed a specific style to illustrate my speeches that became a trademark of my presentations. We created some very memorable moments together.
A regular feature of my AGM state of the industry address was the Wall of Shame. On big slides we put up the names of industry partners that were taking advantage of their monopoly position. It is a serious point but we balanced this by having some fun at their expense. In 2010, we were having some major problems with the global distribution systems, the companies that provide flight information to travel agents. I wanted to highlight this at the AGM and inserted the term “leeches” into my speech. I called it as I saw it—they were sucking the lifeblood of airlines. When it came to illustrating this section, Richard had some trouble. He was trying to be polite. The initial image was of leeches crawling on a throat. But I wanted the extra step, the indelible mark—I wanted to see blood. And when I had that, I also got the GDS names on the slide, to be sure there was no doubt. I admit the IATA Corporate Secretary, Tom Windmuller, and the IATA General Counsel, Gary Doernhoefer, did caution me to use a more considered approach, but I decided to ignore their suggestion. The blood-soaked leeches with GDS names ended up being the most memorable slide of the presentation. It got a long round of applause. I received the “Tell it like it is” award with a personal note from one of the industry’s great communicators—Herb Kelleher, famous for his development of Southwest Airlines and an old friend from my Alitalia days. To me that was a great honour.
Of course, I got some very strong letters of objection from the GDSs, but fortunately IATA’s successes in the court battles that were going on at the time rendered their tantrums mute. In a case against Sabre, the court ruled that IATA’s PaxIS product did not infringe any rights Sabre had claimed. PaxIS (Passenger Intelligence Services) was essentially a market intelligence database. Airlines could see travel trends and adjust their strategy accordingly. The GDSs had a similar data product. We were processing our member’s information to create and sell a market information product and analytical web tool a lot cheaper than the GDSs which had more than a 90% margin. We also avoided liability for material damages claimed by Amadeus and IATA has a positive preliminary decision in the case against Travelport. Antitrust litigation brought by American Airlines against Sabre was recently settled with an undisclosed amount of compensation paid by Sabre. The US Department of Justice Antitrust Division is also investigating GDS behavior for compliance with the antitrust laws.
If you have fun with speeches you’re far more likely to create a memorable impression. I remember when I addressed the European Aviation Club in Brussels in 2004. I wanted to give Europe a wake-up call that change was essential. It was about the time that the European Commission had introduced draconian laws for compensating passengers for delays and cancellations. Let’s be clear about this: fines won’t stop it snowing, huge compensation deals won’t stop volcanoes erupting, and providing care for passengers should surely start with enough runways and airspace.
Anyway, as a publicity stunt, Commission officials had been handing out leaflets in the airports to inform passengers of their rights—which was simply digging a deeper hole. So when I went to make a speech in their home territory, I prepared my own leaflets to publicize the embarrassing lack of leadership on the continent. We outlined $8 billion in damages that Europe’s power-hungry bureaucrats were doing to the industry. The leaflets were handed out as I was talking. It did not make me popular in the Commission’s corridors, but it delivered a strong message and many saw the humour in it.
Some of my speeches also developed a brand beyond the graphics. When we were working on my AGM speech for 2006 in Paris, I was looking for a way to express the frustration that the industry was feeling as a result of inefficient airports and suppliers. I wanted a one-word retort and the only one that would do was from my native language: basta (enough). When I shouted it out at the AGM, it captured the mood of the industry perfectly. There was a great round of applause. People understood the message…or so I thought.
Apparently the Chinese translators couldn’t work out why even an Italian would mention “pasta” at a crucial point in the speech. Others came up afterwards to shake my hand but whispered calling the airports “bastards” was a bit blunt and strong even for me. I’ve been very careful how I say the word ever since. But it became a trademark of my AGM speeches from then on and I even received a silver “basta” ornament at my last AGM in Singapore in 2011. I don’t use my “basta’s” gratuitously, so when I say it, the industry knows I mean it. And at the end of the day, that is what communications is all about.