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Giovanni Bisignani Interview: The Power Of Change

Director General Emeritus Giovanni Bisignani spoke to Airlines International - IATA's flagship magazine - shortly after his retirement, about his time as DG and CEO of IATA—and the challenges that lay ahead.

What was the most important change you made in your time as IATA Director General and CEO?

I made many changes but the first and most important was probably the internal reorganization of IATA itself. To regain relevance we had to rebuild IATA. It was important to put IATA in the driving seat and kill the committee approach. It had to be run like a business with targets and a renewed relevance to the industry. These were the building blocks that made every other development possible.

The industry situation helped a lot. I joined IATA in early 2002 after 9/11 had left the industry in complete turmoil. I didn’t need to explain why change was necessary: it was obvious. And although I didn’t have everybody’s backing I did have the full support of some very influential board members such as Rod Eddington, the British Airways CEO, and Jürgen Weber, head of Lufthansa. Their strong support made the changes possible.

I also knew that if I changed IATA I would start to affect industry processes in general. IATA as an association is very different from the norm. It isn’t just a lobbying organization, talking to governments on the industry’s behalf. It is a key part of the industry it serves and plays an important role in many areas, from safety to finance.

Changing IATA and industry processes meant engaging with every member airline and finding the money to assist our weaker members in implementing changes. IATA could no longer be a big boys’ club. Like the airlines, IATA didn’t have any money at the time. We had no assets and only a few months’ worth of cash. I traveled a lot to build personal relationships with the members. I explained to them all the changes we were intending to make.

And we built up IATA’s commercial division to provide the funds to implement the many projects we became involved in and to allow IATA to reduce member fees.

Aside from staff changes, restructuring IATA involved streamlining the many committees that were micro-managing IATA’s budgets and had become strong opponents to change. So I added a small word to IATA’s mission; we would now lead the airlines as well as serve and represent them. I think the board thought it was just a small change in wording and nobody took much notice. But I used it whenever necessary. Most importantly, I used it to set targets. Because as my mentor, Jack Welch, would say: “no targets, no business.” Still, I always kept in mind that the biggest satisfaction would come from ensuring all our members were on board.

Continue reading the interview at Airlines International