View from the top
In an exclusive first interview, new director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, talks to Joe Bates about today’s challenging operating environment and his goals and ambitions for ACI World.
Replacing a popular predecessor is never easy in the best of times, throw in COVID-19 and its decimating global impact on aviation, and it quickly becomes clear that Luis Felipe de Oliveira has enjoyed somewhat of a baptism of fire as the new director general of ACI World.
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that there are more questions than answers at the moment when it comes to COVID-19, as unlike previous events such as SARS, 9/11 and the 2010 volcanic ash cloud in Europe, its impact is global and nobody knows how long today’s restrictions on our movements and new travel requirements will last.
Will aviation ever be the same again after COVID-19, for example, and is it inevitable that there will be some airport casualties along the way?
These are undeniably difficult days for the world’s airports but, as you would expect, de Oliveira is more than up for the challenge, and with his global experience of working on both sides of the fence in the aviation industry – he is the former head of the Latin America and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA) and has also worked for IATA – it could be argued that he is the ideal choice to lead ACI World during the next chapter in its history.
He says: “We are all in this together. It is not a question of one side against another, and never really has been, as airports and airlines already successfully work together on a number of different initiatives, and this type of collaboration will prove vital to the recovery of the aviation industry.”
The appeal of ACI World
But, first things first, what attracted him to the top job at ACI World? He reveals that he agreed to succeed Angela Gittens late in 2019, although the official announcement of his appointment was made by ACI on February 3 – just over a month before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
If he could turn the clock back, would he perhaps have chosen to stay with ALTA? The suggestion is greeted by a typical laugh and smile from de Oliveira, who starts his reply by reminding me that airports are certainly not alone in facing uncertain times as a result of COVID-19.
“It’s true that the world was a very different place back when I accepted the job than it is now, but I wanted a new challenge after three years with ALTA and the opportunity to become director general of ACI World is something you get once in a lifetime, so I simply couldn’t turn it down,” he enthuses.
“I like challenges, and even though COVID-19 has made it an even bigger challenge than I was expecting, I don’t regret it for one moment. Sure, I will have to learn new things and approach things from a different perspective than I have before, but that is just part of the fun of the new job and I count myself lucky to have it.”
He believes that moving from the airline industry to airports was a logical next step to take, and definitely doesn’t consider himself to be an airline man or to have switched sides.
“I faced the same comment when I moved from an oil company to the airline business. People said that moving from Shell to IATA was going to the other side, but to me it is exactly the same situation now as back then, we are on the same side,” explains de Oliveira.
“We are in the same industry and we need to grow together. That effectively means focusing on what we have in common and finding the synergies to work together to make things happen in the best way for all of us.
“In most cases, airlines and airports have the same objectives. As I know a little bit about both, I know that there is more that unites us than divides us and we are most definitely on the same side.”
Like his predecessor, de Oliveira says that he is very hands on, a good listener, is happy to delegate and believes in the strategy of getting people to buy into clear goals and targets.
“I am very hands on in term of my leadership style,” he tells Airport World. “I like to talk. I like to see people, and I like to be in the middle of things and not viewing from a distance.
“I also that believe that I am very open minded and accessible and enjoy discussing issues with my team and finding solutions together. Yes, at the end of the day I have to make the final decisions, but I want to listen to and understand different points of view before we go ahead.”
When asked which US President his leadership style is more in common with, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, he diplomatically replies that this is a question for his team in Montréal.
However, he is quick to note: “Despite being very social and open, I am results driven and this means that I am very tough and determined when it comes to accomplishing goals as, at the end of the day, achieving them is a sign of success.”
One final thought on his leadership role, de Oliveira hopes that his arrival might also help bring fresh impetus on certain issues, feeling that sometimes, fresh eyes on a particular topic can lead to change or things being done slightly differently.
He explains: “Think of the times when you ask a question of someone who is very familiar with a certain topic and they tell you that what you are suggesting has been tried before, is impossible to do or will never work. Maybe they are right, but maybe they’re not, so I’ll always lead by example and ask the question and possibly bring a new perspective to the table.”
The importance of industry collaboration and co-operation, particularly when it comes to aviation overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, is one of the main messages de Oliveira wants to get across in this article.
He notes that co-operation between different industry partners has been a goal of his since his IATA days and that the need for a more harmonised industry has arguably never been so important as now to ensure the survival of airports, airlines and the thousands of businesses that support air travel.
Talking specifically about the need to enhance ACI’s already close relationship with IATA and the world’s airlines, de Oliveira says: “In many ways COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to improve our relationship with the airlines as, to coin a phrase, we are both in the same boat or perhaps more accurately aeroplane.
“The bottom line is, if we don’t work together, we won’t get out of this crisis. Now is the time to really focus on what we have in common and the challenges we both face, rather than our differences, to ensure the aviation industry’s recovery. We are in this crisis together and need to exit it together.”
He adds: “I think a comment I picked up in my old job best puts this in perspective. I was told that the worst airport in the world is the one that does not exist. After all, if there is no airport, there are no flights and without flights there is obviously no aviation industry.”
ACI World’s new boss is quick to point out that he has spoken to his IATA counterpart, Alexandre de Juniac, four times in his first two weeks in the job and that his team in Montréal are currently talking to IATA on a daily basis.
Indeed, de Oliveira cites the recent ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) Report drafted in collaboration with IATA as an example of the good relationship the two associations currently enjoy.
“Aviation is an interconnected and interdependent global ecosystem and continued global collaboration, co-operation and consistency are key, first for the industry to successfully restart, and then for sustaining a balanced recovery,” he says.
Like most aviation veterans, de Oliveira has no doubt that the industry will recover and eventually come back stronger than before, but he doesn’t know when that will be or what shape the world’s airports will be in when the corner is eventually turned.
He does, however, fear that it could be the end of 2022/start of 2023 at the earliest before global traffic returns to 2019 levels and that there will inevitably be airport casualties on the way, as some already unprofitable airports close because they are unable to keep trading in today’s deflated market.
And he warns that the timing of the global recovery will very much depend on the world’s governments working together to ensure a globally adopted response to COVID-19 and not a series of measures taken independently by countries across the world.
“We have yet to see any light at the end of the tunnel because of the continued spread of the disease and the actions of governments,” says de Oliveira.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am very positive that we will get through this, but we will need a global effort, as unlike events such as SARS, 9/11 and the volcanic eruption in Iceland which were largely confined to one particular part of the world and viewed as temporary disruptions, this a global pandemic with no foreseeable end date.
“We have never been here before, and with no vaccine on the horizon, we need the world’s governments to work in a much more co-ordinated way so that the same COVID-19 rules, regulations and procedures are in place across the world.
“We’ve made a start as we have the guidelines to restart the aviation industry, part of which is in the recently released CART document. The problem is governments or national authorities want to do their own thing, and one rule for one country and another rule for another doesn’t work in a global industry. The global recovery will be very difficult if we don’t talk the same language.”
Talking about the potential closure of some airports, de Oliveira bluntly admits: “We will have some fatalities in the same way as the airlines have lost some carriers as, quite simply, their losses will be too great as they haven’t received anywhere near the level of subsidies, loans and grants that the airlines have received.
“The cold, hard facts are that even before COVID-19, 67% of the world’s airports weren’t profitable and no airport in the world is making money today. If this scenario is to continue for much longer some airports will, unfortunately, have to close down.”
Every airport closure, he notes, will have an impact on the COVID-19 recovery process of the communities, regions and even countries they serve due the key role they play in their social and economic development.
Understandably, de Oliveira won’t be drawn on which gateways are most at risk, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that they are most likely to come from the least profitable group of airports, the ones handling under one million passengers per annum.
Has COVID-19 changed aviation forever?
“I think it is inevitable,” says de Oliveira, noting how the events of 9/11 permanently changed the security process at airports and onboard aircraft, which are all now fitted with cockpit doors that can only be opened from the inside.
“We expect COVID-19 to have the same huge impact on the health side of things as 9/11 did on security, so most of the measures we see being introduced today are here to stay, even after there is a vaccine.
“This will, of course, mean that the travelling public will have to get used to new processes and procedures, like they did for security after 9/11, but people will adapt and these measures will soon be accepted as the new normal in the same way as today’s security processes are.
“We live in a different world now and there is no turning the clock back to how we did things in December 2019. We just hope that this time we will be able to convey the need for common sense and that the same global rules apply to all the countries and airports in the world.”
He believes that new technology will come even more to the fore in the future to enable airports to facilitate quicker, safer and more efficient passenger journeys through their facilities, with physical human interaction being kept to the minimum.
“The aviation industry is remarkably durable and will bounce back from COVID-19 because the demand to travel will never go away,” says de Oliveira.
As some parts of the world, and subsequently their airports begin to open up again to international travellers, he also believes that it is important that airport bosses and industry leaders set an example by travelling by air as soon as it is safe to do to send the message to people that the industry is up and running and back in business.
Longer-term, post COVID-19, de Oliveira says that his, and ACI World’s mission, is to continue to work to ensure the best conditions for the sustainable development of the world’s airports.
This, he says, will mean encouraging airports to further enhance their environmental credentials; embrace new technology to improve the operational efficiency of aviation; and taking the levels of co-operation with ICAO and other industry partners to even greater heights.
He is also aware of the need for ACI World to continue to enjoy and build on its good working relationship with regions (Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean and North America) to ensure that it supports all of them to achieve their respective ambitions and goals.
For someone as social as Luis Felipe de Oliveira you can tell that the current situation of video calls has been quite tough for him as he is a self-confessed “people person” who likes to meet and talk to people face-to-face, rather than via an internet app like Zoom or Google Meet.
His warm personality came across loud and clear during our video call, as indeed did his patience when my internet link failed, and we ended up finishing the interview by telephone via a speaker phone in the house of ACI World’s communications director, David Whitely.
During our chat he says that his wife often jokes with him that he wants to have a million friends, just like in the song by the famous Brazilian singer, songwriter, Roberto Carlos. I have no idea how many friends he has today, but based on our one and only chat to date, I am sure that the figure will soar when the world’s airports get to know him!