In an IATA career spanning a decade, Giovanni Bisignani has dragged this venerable air transport industry institution kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Now the high-energy Italian is about to pass the control wheel over to Cathay Pacific's Tony Tyler
He's made it relevant again" is the most frequently heard praise about what Bisignani has done for IATA. From day one of his draft in June 2002, the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks fresh in everyone's minds and an industry slump to deal with, he has tackled the mammoth task of turning IATA around with passion, guts and gusto.
This was no job for the meek. Big personalities inspire big organisations and make big changes: Kelleher at Southwest, Crandall at American, or O'Leary at Ryanair spring to mind. Add Giovanni Bisignani to that list.
Inspired by his mentor GE guru Jack Welsh, he was ready to lead IATA's big revolution. The board backed him in 2002 to wake up the sleeping giant. He set that backing as a pre-condition for his arrival. He didn't waste a moment to begin the shake-up and out went dozens of IATA stalwarts. Offices were closed, budgets turned inside out.
Bisignani's IATA reign has propelled the association to an unheard of profile and respect. Much of this has been down to his unashamed mantra of "shouting politely" at those who blocked his IATA agenda. But this is not just shouting, for in his decade IATA has become the benchmark for aviation industry lobbying. From its sleepy past the association is a force to be reckoned with. Now people listen. His messages are carefully crafted, consistently argued and eloquent, his accented English somehow increasing the impact of the words.
He is not afraid to bang the table or cause offence to make his point. The first "bastas" blasted out at Istanbul's 2008 IATA annual meeting shocked an audience into rapt attention. Basta is the Italian word for enough and has been thrown at airports, ATC providers, government taxes and GDSs alike.
Some feel his style is too bombastic and too dictatorial. Others argue that without his ruthless determination to focus IATA on objectives and targets it would have faded away.
One thing is certain - you couldn't ignore him. He has developed a cult-like status in this industry. "Giovanni is like an expresso - small, strong and loved around the world," said Lufthansa head Wolfgang Mayrhuber at last year's annual meeting in Berlin.
The list of achievements on Bisignani's watch is impressive as he steered a path through the industry's most trying decade. The cost-cutting Simplifying the Business initiative, spearheaded by e-ticketing, its carbon neutral growth strategy, and the Agenda for Freedom initiative to liberalise air transport are some of the highlights. These are often discussed at the highest political levels, with Bisignani taking IATA's message to prime ministers and presidents where once it dealt with lower-ranking officials.
Soon those leaders will be seeing a new IATA head in the shape of Englishman Tony Tyler, who has spent virtually his entire career with Hong Kong's Swire Group and specifically Cathay Pacific, becoming chief executive in 2007. Bisignani raised the bar of the IATA role. The team of CEOs searching for his replacement were searching for a high-profile, highly accomplished head of one of the globe's top 25 carriers. Tyler has all these credentials. He will bring a new tone to IATA, and critically, despite his birthplace, will shift the centre of gravity in a much needed direction - Asia. For many, moving IATA away from its traditional Western powerbase is long overdue.
IATA would have loved a "Chinese diplomat" with Tyler's qualities but can't get one. In Tyler, however, they get the next best thing for he understands Asia both culturally and emotionally. Tyler will be the first to credit how far and fast IATA has come on the back of an Italian "forza" in Giovanni Bisignani. As he prepares to bow out, Bisignani's report card will definitely read "exceeded - expectations". The man from Rome wound up at the right place at exactly the right time.