Air France Hires New CEO — First Woman to Lead a Major Airline

Dec 12, 2018

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After a tumultuous year of staff strikes and resignations, Air France has finally appointed a permanent new CEO, the airline said Wednesday. Even more notable, the woman helming the carrier will be the first-ever female CEO of a major global airline.

Anne Rigail, who was previously Air France’s executive vice president customer division, will take her new office in the C-suite on Monday, Dec. 17. Rigail’s promotion was proposed by Benjamin Smith, who had been appointed acting CEO of Air France until the end of the year, and was approved by the airline’s board of directors at their most recent meeting on Tuesday. (Smith will remain CEO of the parent aviation group Air France-KLM).

Air France's Executive Vice President Customer Division Anne Rigail speaks during a press conference to announce the re-opening of direct flight between Paris and Nairobi, in Nairobi on March 26, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Yasuyoshi CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Anne Rigail speaks during a press conference to announce the re-opening of direct flight between Paris and Nairobi, in Nairobi on March 26, 2018. Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images.

“Anne is a strong professional in the airline industry,” Smith said in a statement on Wednesday. “Throughout her career, she has always paid particular attention to employees while implementing the many projects and transformations she has led, and placed the customer at the heart of everything she does. With the support and commitment of every single employee, I am confident we can rise to the challenges for Air France today, ensuring service excellence to all our customers.”

Those challenges Smith mentioned have been significant over the course of the past year. The French airline has been roiled by a series of staff strikes, in which employees demanded higher wages and staged walkouts from February and into the fall. The two feuding sides were only able to negotiate an agreement in October. Staffers will see a 4% pay increase by 2019. The months and months of protests cost the airline at least $380 million in lost revenue, and they cost the former CEO his job.

“I cannot see how I could stay at the head of the company,”former CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac said at a press conference in May after several failed negotiation attempts. Now, Rigail will take over a somewhat placated workforce.

She will also be the first woman to become CEO of a major airline in the world. By comparison, the highest-ranking woman airline executive in the US is JetBlue’s President and Chief Operating Officer Joanna Geraghty, who was promoted to her current role in May. Recent numbers show that there is a notable dearth of female leadership in commercial aviation, especially when compared with other industries. In March, the International Air Transport Association said that only 3% of airline CEOs worldwide were women, compared to 12% of women CEOs in other industries.

Featured image by Air France-KLM.

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