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Charting a New Path for Airline Leaders

Future airline trends are sparking a new wave of leadership imperatives to drive business, inspire, attract and retain top talent to thrive in a post pandemic reality.

Airlines are finally rebounding from a crisis that spawned $200 billion in losses across the industry over the last couple of years. With recovery underway, leadership teams are switching gears from fighting for survival to ramping up their operational capacity. But as the industry rejoices about the upward trajectory, several operational and talent challenges remain against a backdrop of global uncertainty.

Egon Zehnder held several discussions with airline executives to understand how they’ve navigated this landscape so far, the lessons learned, and trends that lie ahead. An important takeaway: The true “winners” are the nimble airlines that find balance between short-term agility and efficiency while simultaneously focusing on longer-term customer needs. As travel restrictions loosen and travel ramps up, now is the time to invest in customer-centric capabilities, operations, and a renewed look at leadership.

Drawing from the work we do in the space and from executives’ insights, this series examines the three key areas that will fundamentally shape the future of airlines and how leaders (including the board, the CEO, and the executive team) can adapt to thrive as they go from recovery to growth. 

Adaptability is Key to Succeed

Before we dive into the major trends shaping the industry, there’s an underlying leadership imperative to succeed in today’s landscape: the capacity to adapt in face of structural changes in customer needs and expectations; and the impact of further industry consolidation resulted from significant differences in unit cost, operational flexibility, and commercial models among the various players. 

Responding to these evolving and unexpected challenges will require from boards and CEOs a culture of agility and a new talent strategy to identify leaders with potential to thrive and adapt when faced with these issues. As one airline CEO said, “This crisis has significantly unveiled who in my senior management team strikes me as a decision-maker and adaptable manager and who just cannot adjust to the immediate requirements.”

These efforts will entail a lot of experimentation with operating models and an intentional effort from senior management to instill a sense of purpose across the organization for positive outcomes. “I became somewhat overwhelmed by this crisis,” one airline CEO told us. “There are so many things to watch and opportunities to do things differently in the future. I have already ramped up a task force who is rethinking our company from scratch. There will be no exceptions: Our full business strategy is under review.”

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