In deep water — Can TAP CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener survive?

 In Companies, News, TAP

The growing number of controversies, from top-of-the-range BMW car fleets for directors, to an un-sanctioned ‘compensation’ payout of €500,000 to a director who barely spent five minutes in the job, is inevitably begging the question “just how long can she survive?”

We are, of course, referring to TAP CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener, who while not directly responsible for any of these things, having inherited a poisoned chalice of a task from Miguel Frasquilho in June 2021 – she was appointed to overhaul and restructure the airline – is nonetheless leading a company that has been mired in industrial disputes over pay and conditions for months.
Being the CEO of TAP must be rather like being the director of ‘Raise the Titanic’ or perhaps the captain in the disaster movie Airport 77 with the key protagonists (in this case TAP’s directors) scrambling for lifejackets as a 747 submerges breath the turbulent waves, while Brenda Vaccaro stumbles sloshed up the aisle with a large whiskey in hand.
My goodness! Christine Ourmières-Widener deserves a stiff drink dealing with that lot. Running what is and always has been, to all intents and purposes, a Portuguese public company managed by Portuguese with a very Portuguese and not very international business mentality must be a disaster movie.
Maybe she likes herculean challenges. I remember conversing with the ex-President of Novo Banco António Ramalho, who told me last year when asked if all the scandals, controversies and public enquiries had driven him close to a nervous breakdown, cheerily informed me that he’d loved every minute of the job and had relished the challenges.
I have to admit that I admire her for doing what must be a nigh-on impossible job, even if she did look a bit silly offering Richard Quest a whole tray of Portuguese custard tarts on a brief CNN ‘Quest Means Business’ interview in which nobody was any the wiser about what was really going on at the airline.
Following the exit of ex-director Alexandra Reis (it is said the two women didn’t get on), fathoming what is happening behind closed doors in the TAP boardroom must be rather akin to imagining what’s going in the Kremlin. As Churchill famous said: “wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma” or “comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug”.
So the question is can she survive and for how long, or will she be conveniently scapegoated as the outsider, the French businesswoman with her tray of Portuguese tarts like Marie Antoinette at the French court?
And after last year, which was a ‘vrai cauchmare’ by any standards which she met bravely in the spirit of Jean d Arc, the start of this year is not promising any peace anytime soon.
Unions have already indicated that they will go on strike for seven days at the end of January, while it was revealed, rather embarrassingly, that top-brass managers and directors had spent €450 a month on Uber taxis.
The last TAP strike cost the company (the taxpayers) €8 million and led to the cancelation of 400 flights. The next one, if it is not called off, could lead to 2,100 flights being affected.
And unfortunately, the controversies seem to be happening on a regular basis, which is further damaging the company’s already tarnished image, and not all of its woes can be blamed on the Covid-19 epidemic or the fallout from the war in Ukraine.
It seems that ever since she has arrived, Christine Ourmières-Widener has been plagued by one incident after another, spending her time trying to put out fires while continuing to restructure a sacred cow company and facing much internal resistance in doing so. But we are not in India and there is no such thing as a sacred cow when it comes to business.
But she has been up against the mother of all fires; a veritable Towering Inferno to mention another cheesy disaster film (Ouch!). But then if I have used a lot of 1970s disaster movies to allegorically illustrate the airline’s woes, imagine what it would be like to actually do a full-length feature film about all the goings on at TAP? Wouldn’t it be rather like a really bad American disaster movie?

Who is Christine Ourmières-Widener?

Christine Ourmières-Widener has had a long and stellar career in the aviation business since the late 1980s. The businesswoman and manager worked at Air France from 1988, where she started in the maintenance team for the Concorde. Her responsibilities grew into a commercial role where she eventually headed the Air France KLM team for North America based in New York. Subsequently appointed UK and Ireland Managing Director for Air France, she was then named Chief Executive of the Irish airline CityJet, after it was bought by Air France, from 1 October 2010 to 2015. She was for some time part of the European Regions Airline Association.
On 20 December 2016, it was announced that she was joining Flybe. She became Chief Executive of Flybe on 16 January 2017. During their annual meeting in 2018, it was announced by the IATA that she had been elected to the board of directors of the organisation. She was the first woman elected to the board of 31 members. She had been appointed interim director on 24 April 2017, when Fernando Pinto stepped down.
On 29 May 2019, she resigned as CEO of Flybe, with her departure taking effect on 15 July of the same year. The move came following recurring financial problems in the company, which was subsequently taken over by Connect Airways, a consortium of Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Air and a US investor.
On 24 June 2021, Ourmières-Widener was appointed CEO of Portugal’s flag carrier TAP Air Portugal to oversee the restructuring of the airline to make it a viable proposition with a view to it being sold on. In purely financial terms, it can be said she has been a success by turning the company’s operational financial situation around from a €444 million turnover in 2021 to an even healthier operational turnover of €1.1Bn in 2022. But it is the resistance from pilot and cabin crew unions in Portugal to pay cuts, coupled with a series of minor scandals which, when taken together, have made the airline look profligate with public money.