AEA SUMMIT: New CEO outlines his vision

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The Association of European Airlines has had a makeover. The long-serving industry body is unveiling its new slimmed-down shape during its first open-door annual general meeting, where chief executive Athar Husain Khan is showcasing a much more outwardly-focused organisation which aims to shout its messages from the rooftops.

A new organisational structure sees Husain Khan – who was named acting secretary general 18 months ago, following the departure of Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus – become the AEA’s first chief executive. Alongside him, Turkish Airlines chief Temel Kotil succeeds Brussels Airlines boss Bernard Gustin to become the association’s chairman.

Furthermore, subject to approval by the AEA’s presidents’ committee, a new non-executive chairman role will be created. The aim is to appoint somebody senior from the industry with strong political nous and the capability of strengthening the association’s political voice in Brussels.

“What we’re setting out to do with the Aviation Leadership Summit is [demonstrate] a total revamp of the way in which AEA deals with the outside world,” says Husain Khan.

This “total opening up of the Assembly” mirrors the changes that have been happening within the AEA to turn it from an “inward-looking”, largely administrative body into a more outward-looking organisation with a stronger lobbying presence.

“The over-arching idea is that we want to show the outside world that this is a new AEA and a new era,” says Husain Khan. “We have reshaped for the challenges of the future to become more efficient and more externally-focused.”

In order to improve efficiency the AEA has shed 40% of its full-time equivalent staff, says Husain Khan, reducing back-office administrative functions while strengthening its political and communications teams.

“When I was appointed interim secretary general, it was clear to me that we had to change the internal structure,” he says. “Members now have a lean, mean organisation that has cut costs by almost 30% and is much more focused on delivering messages to the outside world.”

The restructuring saw administrative positions cut to free up resources to bolster the communications department, so that AEA’s messages could be conveyed loudly and clearly, and to strengthen the political department to give it more sway in Brussels on the big issues.

The issues on which the new AEA plans to be the most vocal include the environment, anti-terrorism, improving infrastructure, slots at airports and passenger rights. It will look to bring down barriers that it believes impede the competitiveness of Europe’s airlines, and will be pressing for an improved air transport policy. “A key ask will be that Europe needs to come up with a comprehensive air transport policy because, at the moment, it’s non-existent,” says Husain Khan.

In addition to launching a new logo, redesigning its website, slimming down and changing the focus of its staff and opening the doors of its AGM, the AEA has been making changes at the top. The appointment of a chairman from an airline outside the EU, which is unusual move for the AEA but not unique, demonstrates the diversity of the association’s membership, says Husain Khan.

“The AEA is not set up according to the EU28 borders – our definition is the broader Europe so that would include Turkey,” he says, pointing out that in addition to Turkish Airlines the AEA counts among its members Icelandair, Swiss International Air Lines and Ukraine International Airlines – none of which are based in EU member states.

Comparing his organisation with other European airline groups, such as the European Low Fares Airline Association (ELFAA) and the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), Husain Khan is keen to highlight this diversity as a key differentiating factor.

“Our picture is the most diverse – we have traditional network carriers, full-cargo airlines and smaller airlines, so there’s much more of a mix,” he says, adding that rather than viewing one another as competitors the various airline bodies can co-operate. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of working together to deliver a common goal.”

The decision to create the new role of non-executive chairman was taken to ensure that the AEA’s political messages could be conveyed as effectively as possible in Brussels. Husain Khan describes the role as “more of a political function to strengthen our network in Brussels”, a position which will require “a low amount of hours of commitment”. While it is “not a given that anyone will be appointed” during the AGM, he says the right person for the role would be “someone very senior in the industry who is well-versed in the Brussels arena, with political contacts”.

On the issue of membership, Husain Khan reveals that one new member airline will be named during the AGM and “two or three” additional applications are “in the pipeline”. The AEA currently counts 31 airlines among its membership, down from 33 when Husain Khan first joined the association six years ago.

Summing up his hopes for the unveiling of the revitalised AEA, Husain Khan says: “If I come out of the Assembly on Friday evening with a feeling that the outside world has recognised a more outward, transparent AEA – that’s what we’re aiming for.”