Ben Smith, Air Canada’s President, Airlines and Chief Operating Officer, will be named chief executive officer of Air France-KLM on Thursday, sources familiar with the situation say.
Mr. Smith, 46, is the first non-French national to head Air France.
Mr. Smith 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 Mr. Rovinescu in the airline’s turnaround after the 2008-09 recession and its trip through creditor protection earlier in the 2000s.
Air Canada has in recent years reported the highest profits in its 80-year history and its shares have soared to a close of $23.40 in trading on the TSX on Wednesday from $1.26 in 2010.
“Calin’s sort of the deal-maker and the mergers-and-acquisitions guy and the restructuring guy. Ben has been the driver of Air Canada’s commercial strategy,” said long-time industry observer Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based consulting firm AirTrav Inc.
A life-long aviation enthusiast, Mr. Smith began his airline career in 1990 as a unionized 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 its low-cost Tango operations.
He served in a variety of increasingly important 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.
He was appointed president of passenger airlines in 2014, a new position at Air Canada – and a clear indication that he was the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Rovinescu.
Mr. Smith’s Air Canada biography describes him as “the visionary behind Air Canada’s strategic and diversified global network expansion to more than 200 destinations on six continents with a fleet of over 350 aircraft.”
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 Canada’s turnaround can be measured by its financial performance: final profit of $2.04-billion in 2017, compared with a loss of $60-million in 2010.
The changes that contributed to the transformation included the purchase of new wide-bodied and narrow-bodied airplanes and how to deploy them, the creation of its low-cost Rouge unit and, with no-strike clauses with the unions providing a foundation, a focus on the expansion of international routes
“That’s clearly a Ben Smith footprint,” Mr. Kokonis said. “Ben’s been the driver – the conductor of a very large, complicated orchestra [with] all these moving parts.”
It is a larger orchestra at Air France-KLM, which operates 340 planes, compared with 229 for Air Canada’s mainline and Rouge operations. The Franco-Dutch airline carried 98 million passengers last year, more than double the 47.8 million Air Canada travellers.
Air France-KLM revenues amounted to €25.8 billion (about $38.5-billion) compared with Air Canada revenue of $16.2-billion.
But the European carrier 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 Mr. Smith’s predecessor, Jean-Marc Janaillac, his job when he said he would resign if Air France employees voted down a 7-per-cent wage increase over four years. They did.
Mr. Smith’s combination of expertise in the commercial side of the airline industry and his experience in steering the labour negotiations at Air Canada are the key reasons for his hiring, the sources said.
“It will be, of course, the first task of the new management to try to solve the situation,” temporary chief executive officer Frédéric Gagey said on the airline’s second-quarter financial results conference call this month.
Air France-KLM, along with its legacy carrier rivals in Europe – Lufthansa AG and International Airlines Group, parent of British Airways and Iberia of Spain – also faces competition at both the low-cost end of the scale and for premium travellers.
“They’re being squeezed on the long-haul service by the Gulf carriers and they’re also being squeezed on the other side by the low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers,” Mr. Kokonis said, referring to competitors such as Norwegian Air, easyJet and RyanAir. “They’re having their lunch eaten on both sides.”