The board of director of Air France KLM have announced the appointment of the company’s first non-French CEO in Benjamin Smith.
Smith is currently Air Canada’s president and COO and has been with the airline for the past 20 years. He was appointed after months of speculation following the resignation of former chief Jean-Marc Janaillac in May.
Janaillac stepped down from the role after striking Air France staff rejected his final pay deal and the airline faced significant losses due to the strikes. An announcement on his replacement was originally expected in July.
Smith will take up the position by 30 September, with non-executive chairman Anne-Marie Couderc carrying on as interim boss in the meantime. He will take over executive management of the Air France KLM Group and will be charged with ‘revitalising’ Air France.
Air France KLM says it wanted to announce Smith’s appointment “as soon as possible” and with “the full support of the French state”, which owns a 14.3 per cent stake in the group.
Rumours of Smith’s impending appointment have cause controversy in France this week, with unions protesting the possibility of foreign governance for the first time in the airline’s 85-year history.
Union leaders were especially angry about rumours that Smith would be offered €3.3 million – 300 per cent more than Janaillac – at a time when the airline is making cuts to costs, including staffing.
Air France’s staff unions say they will meet on 27 August to discuss a fresh round of strikes. Staff agreed to pause industrial action after Janaillac stepped down to allow the airline to appoint a new chief to head up negotiations.
Air France KLM has declined to comment on Smith’s pay so far, but say he was chosen for his track record of ‘transforming’ Air Canada.
Anne-Marie Couderc commented: “The arrival of Benjamin Smith is excellent news for the group. Benjamin is a world-renowned leader in the airline sector who successfully transformed Air Canada. As a man who prefers dialogue, he developed and implemented the historical long-term win-win agreements with the airline’s social partners for the benefit of Air Canada’s teams, the airline and all other stakeholders... On behalf of the board, I welcome and assure him of our total support for the task ahead.”
Smith added: “I am well aware of the competitive challenges the Air France KLM Group is currently facing and I am convinced that the airlines’ teams have all the strengths to succeed in the global airline market.
“I look forward to earning the trust and respect of all teams, working together to win in this highly competitive and fast-changing customer service industry. I am approaching this new challenge with my passion for the aviation sector and with my deep willingness to listen to all stakeholders so we can work together and win.”