Airlines and airports: Milton, Tilton and the Taj Mahal

No mild-mannered Canadian, that Robert Milton, the former Yank who took Air Canada from near death to profits; as host of the latest Star Alliance chief executive board meeting in Montr饌l in early December, Robert, as Milton is called by all, has rallied at least one Star ally to his fight against rising airport fees that finance grand and grandiose terminal construction, the Taj Mahal syndrome as he calls it.

Robert came to the Star summit fresh from a meeting of IATA – which he chairs this year – to reveal plans for a possible alliance boycott of the most egregiously offending airports. He says: “Airlines are going to have to talk in unison, beyond what the head of IATA, Giovanni Bisignani calls ‘shouting politely’.” Bisignani has campaigned diplomatically on this for the last three years and in November moved to a near-confrontation with the Airports Council International.

Milton is moving further, saying a boycott would mean “airlines as a group determining that they really will not as a group fly to a destination. That was discussed today and I think there really is a willingness to go that far because some of what is being done is really absurd. Unless we begin to act with one voice, we will continue to see this sort of reckless expenditure by generally ungoverned bodies around the world” – namely the “private monopolies” that many airports have, in his view, become.

Air Canada tried in vain to limit the massive C$3.3 billion expansion of Toronto Pearson, which is now “the most expensive airport on the planet”, he said.

Milton, president and chief executive of Air Canada parent ACE Holdings, had an ally by the next morning: United Airlines chief executive Glenn Tilton. Sitting next to Milton at a breakfast table with reporters, Tilton said: “You bet I’m part of Robert’s hit squad. You might call it Milton and Tilton…” Tilton joined Milton in naming Caracas, Venezuela, as a possible target; there, unlike the nearly-completed Toronto, action might head off unreasonable plans and inequitable fees. Tilton says: “There are a lot of airports on the hit list.”

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