IATA: Tyler upbeat on AGM after busy first year ‘up in the air’

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Tony Tyler admits he failed in one of his key objectives during his first year in charge of IATA - which was to try to spend less time up in the air than his "road-warrior" predecessor Giovanni Bisignani.

"I've done a lot of travelling. I came to the job intending to do less [than Giovanni], but I've been told by my colleagues and my long-suffering fiancée that I've been doing more," he jokes. "But it's been a good learning experience, it's been fun, and I've enjoyed working with the team."

Tyler's own mandate during his first year as director general has been to better understand the people, the airlines and the parts of the industry that he had less involvement with during his many years in airline management - the most recent being chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways.

"I've put a priority on getting to know everybody. Getting out to parts of the world that I didn't know well, like South America, Africa and the Middle East. I also wanted to meet other airlines. I bring 30 years' experience, but all with one airline. I was surprised how many people I did know. And through coming to these AGMs too - they are a great opportunity to meet other 'victims' of this industry.

"IATA's a broad church. For example, it has traditional European carriers who see themselves challenged by the new groups in the Middle East, and we've got the Middle East carriers who see themselves as the more modern way of doing things. So I wanted to make sure I understood the viewpoints from everybody."

Tyler has also had to brush up his understanding on areas where knowledge of the nitty gritty was not so critical when he was running an airline.

"For example, I need to know all the details of how the industry settlement systems work and the various other financial systems that IATA runs for the industry. As an airline CEO, all you need to know is that you can sell through travel agents and IATA somehow pays you the money. Now I need to know how all that works, what are the issues, and make sure it all runs smoothly."

He's also had to learn a lot more about the operational side of the industry, such as air traffic management. "As a CEO, you know how it works in principle, but I've had to learn a lot more so that when I go and talk to governments or the European Commission, I fully understand the point I'm making."

Significantly, one of Tyler's first ports of call during his extensive road trip agenda was the Middle East, which he visited shortly after taking the helm at last year's lively AGM in Singapore, where several Gulf carrier chief executives voiced criticisms during an open forum of the way IATA was being run under his predecessor. Emirates boss Tim Clark then famously stated: "Clearly, there is the view that this is an entity that is run for the few by the few, and that has to end. You must, in the view of Emirates, open up the dialogue far more we need to see action."

The visit to the Middle East shortly after Tyler's appointment was made so he could make sure he understood what the airlines in the region wanted from the association. And while last year's events may have been a surprise for the new director general, Tyler takes great strength from the passion he witnessed in Singapore: "What we saw was a bit dramatic and unusual, but the underlying sentiment is positive. You've got a bunch of busy people who are not too busy to care about IATA."

Tyler says that since his arrival, he has sought to make sure that everyone understands the need for transparency. "We've got nothing to be ashamed of, so transparency is not a problem. We do a fine job for the industry and the AGM is our opportunity to demonstrate that and explain it."

He reiterates IATA's role to provide the means for airlines to productively and legally work together: "There's always going to be competition between our members and that's entirely healthy. IATA's here to work on the common challenges and if we can all understand each other and remain friendly with each, it's going to be a lot easier."

But there is no wish to change IATA for the sake of it, says Tyler. The objective is to deliver value to the members and deliver it along the lines in which they want it. "I'm taking my direction from the board and from listening to what all the members say. I don't often visit a member and hear something that the board hasn't discussed."

He has not found the need yet to tinker with the IATA team or its structure: "Giovanni left a pretty good one in place," he says. He will, however, unveil details of a strategic review during this week's AGM.

And with the memories of last year's unprecedented events still fresh in everyone's minds, does Tyler expect to see a repeat this year? "I don't mind if we do," he says. "I don't want an overly choreographed, pre-cooked meeting. I want people to take part. I hope we have a lively, good-humoured and well-mannered meeting and we'll have a contribution from the floor."