Canadian set to be new Air France boss despite union opposition

Canadian Ben Smith looks set to be named the new CEO of Air France, despite trade union opposition to a foreigner heading the national carrier. Smith is currently the number two of Air Canada.

Ben Smith at the 2016 International Air Transport Association Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit in Dublin
Ben Smith at the 2016 International Air Transport Association Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit in Dublin REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

The Canadian, who is currently president of airlines and chief operating officer at Air Canada, has an "excellent profile", French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire declared before the Air France board meeting on Thursday afternoon.

The state has a 14.3 percent share of the company and Le Maire said that government representatives would vote for Smith.

He fulfils its conditions of having "a good knowledge of the airline sector and international competition" and "has already proved himself in a large airline", the minister explained.

Smith concluded a 10-year agreement with flight crew unions at Air Canada's low-cost arm, Rouge, and is credited with transforming Toronto Airport into the centre of the company's international operations.

Unions oppose foreigner

But on Thursday morning a joint committee of nine out of the 10 unions at the company slammed the prospective appointment.

"It is inconceivable that the Air France company, French since 1933, should fall into the hands of a foreign executive whose candidacy is being promoted by a competitor," a statement said.

The competitor in question is US-based Delta Airlines, which owns 8.8 percent of the company.

"The choice of candidate should be based on the defence of the interests of our national company," the statement continued, adding that the meeting was taking place "on the quiet", the day after a public holiday and during the summer vacation period.

In an interview published on Sunday, pilots' union leader Philippe Evain also condemned the idea and pledged "15 days of strikes" if the new boss did not reopen negotiations on a union pay demand.

On Wednesday he accused the board of preparing to "hand over the keys of Air France to the Americans".

One union, FO, laid into a reported plan to raise the CEO's salary by 300 percent on Twitter.

Troubled year

The company has made substantial losses due to 15 days of rolling strikes already this year and its shares have dropped 35 percent in value since January.

Former CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac resigned in May after putting a company salary proposal to employees in an online ballot and losing.

Unions at the Dutch arm, VNV, have also threatened 15 days of strikes if there is no reponse to their demands onpay and working conditions by Friday, according to De Telegraf newspaper.

The choice of new CEO was to be announced on Thursday evening, Le Maire said.

"We want to turn the page of the conflict at Air France as soon as possible," Le Maire said on Thursday. "We must turn the page on conflict and strikes and adopt a strategy. Air France has to revive its competitivity and social dialogue."

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