ALTA: Interview with executive director Alex de Gunten

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Next year, executive director Alex de Gunten will celebrate a decade at the helm of ALTA during which time he has navigated an era of dynamic change both for the organisation and its members. Latin America's airlines have undergone a huge transformation and de Gunten has made sure that ALTA has kept pace with them on every step of that journey.

"I love what I do, and that kind of job is hard to get," he says. "I love the people I work for and the people I work with, and that makes it easy. And I have a lot of freedom and support from the CEOs."

But that love affair would have been hard to predict back in 2003 when he was first approached for the job of heading up ALTA. At that time, the organisation was very different and the role of leading it was not one that appealed to de Gunten.

With a wealth of airline experience within the Latin American region (including stints at Canadian Airlines and Lan) as well as with online travel agency Orbitz, de Gunten was identified by ALTA as the industry man to steer it in a new direction.

"Back then ALTA was a very different organisation - much like the industry was. It was very focused on governments and most of the airlines were state-owned. It was run by one of the leading aviation lawyers in the region and very focused on legal and regulatory aspects.

"So when they first contacted me my reaction was 'thank you very much but you're looking for a lawyer so I'm probably not the right person for the job'. My perception of the organisation was that I would become a lobbyist/bureaucrat, and that wasn't exciting to me.

"But they came back and said 'no, we're really looking for more of an entrepreneurial person who is going to help the organisation become much more nimble and relevant'."

The industry was changing and the airline CEOs knew ALTA also had to evolve. "The old government airlines were being privatised and the old way of running them was changing. So there was already this new blood leading the airlines and they wanted to see the same change in the association," says de Gunten.

"They needed it to run in a much more entrepreneurial way that not only allowed them to look at the long-term issues but also helped them deal with crises, improve efficiency and safety of the industry and bring value to the members."

So having been convinced to take up the challenge, de Gunten took over from retiring ALTA chief Ernesto Vazquez Rocha at the ALTA board meeting in November 2003. "They convinced me they'd provide the support, and part of the reason the organisation has changed so much and why we've become so relevant and productive for the members, is that I've always had the support of the CEOs," he says.

"Although they compete aggressively with each other in the market place, the CEOs really believe that in the interests of safety, cost-efficiency and so on they need to work together for a strong, safe industry."

De Gunten thinks the results of his organisation's efforts speak for themselves. "A region that was once at the end of the list of productive regions in the industry, can today boast some of the world's top carriers with very solid and consistent management."

He is particularly proud of how the region's airlines have transformed their safety standards, with ALTA's efforts in this field recently recognised by the Flight Safety Foundation (see p24). But de Gunten is under no illusions that safety remains a work in progress: "We're still not where we want to be but we're going in the right direction," he says.

"The record was really poor and we've improved quite a bit. In Latin America over the last four years we are below the world average accident rate in terms of the IOSA [IATA operational safety audit] members. So to be there when Latin America was always with the Africas etc is quite positive.

"But that is for the IOSA members. If you look at the non-IOSA airlines there are four times the numbers in terms of accident rates. So there is a marked difference for IOSA members and one of our pushes is to get our governments to use IOSA as a requirement for certification. Brazil and Chile have it and, to a lesser extent, Mexico."

ALTA is also very active in trying to tackle the incessant taxation and charges that blight the aviation industry. "In some cases we've avoided increases and in others we've negotiated reductions," de Gunten says. "This effort is ongoing and we're doing a better job every day convincing our governments about the value of aviation."

De Gunten, who has "a couple of projects" still up his sleeve, says that his biggest achievement, and the one that gives him the most pride, has been being able to keep the industry together: "The airlines in the region really try to work together to improve the industry. And that is not easy when there are all kinds of different characters and priorities. And we're very proud that our annual forum is regarded as one of one of the airline industry's best gatherings."