Monday, June 11, 2012

Airline Industry Challenges Prompt Potty Talk in Beijing

Writing from Beijing

I'm going to get vulgar here, but in my defense, I didn't start it. I'll lay the blame at the highly polished brogues of television personality Richard Quest. Spiffed up with just the right amount of French cuff revealed at the sleeves of his perfectly tailored suit jacket, Quest was clearly on a hunt for trouble on Monday at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Beijing.

In what might be considered putting a stick into a bucket of you-know-what and giving it a stir, the CNN host asked provocative questions of his panel of airline executives and got back as good as he gave when he took on the quarrelsome boss of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker.

Asking if al Baker was satisfied with his new role on the board of governors of the group, Quest suggested that the scrappy airline exec's presence in IATA's inner circle reminded him of something once said by US President Dwight Eisenhower; "Better to have you on the inside pissing out, than on the outside pissing in."  (Quest misattributed the quote. It was in fact said by US President Lyndon Johnson. Still, we got the point.)

In making the jibe, Quest waded in to the thicket created last year when al Baker took on the controversial outgoing director general of IATA, Giovanni Bisignani accusing him of high handedness and excluding from important decisions in the association, the up-and-coming Eastern carriers including those in the Gulf.

Bisignani is gone and the opinionated al Baker, is not. Far from it. He was sharing the stage with executives of Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways.

"I will still piss when I'm not satisfied," al Baker told Quest. Promising or perhaps threatening more rain could fall on IATA's parade.

As airline members complete the first of two days of meetings here, Quest prompted the panelists to talk about their frustration over a lengthy list of challenges they face from fuel prices, to Europe's emission trading scheme to the fact that airlines are - as Qantas boss Alan Joyce put it - "easy cash cows" for governments to milk. 

But nobody spoke as bluntly as al Baker. The regulators "think the sun shines through their ass*****"  he offered, and even Quest, who started it all seemed startled.

Lest I lead you to believe the entire session was potty talk, it was not. Some time was reserved for the less sensational opinions of the other executives. Joyce in a fit of optimism predicted that next year, many of this year's problems will be resolved and airlines will be flying high.

"Delusional!" was Quest's comeback.

But it was Piyasvasti Amranand, the (recently sacked) leader of Thai Airways whose speculation was most in keeping with Quest's tone as trouble-making moderator.

"Next year" he said, IATA members will be talking about the same old problems, problems with fuel, problems with labor, problems with regulators, even "the same problems we've been having with Akbar al Baker, " and neither Quest nor al Baker had a rejoinder to that.

Special thanks to Zach Naimon for his help posting to Flying Lessons while I am traveling.

For non-aviation news on my visit to China, click here.

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