Monday 20 August 2018

Aer Lingus: Sabena 'axe man' is used to turbulence

Christoph Mueller
has not run
another
independent
airline since
Sabena failed,
preferring to
work in senior
positions within
large
conglomerates
such as DHL and
TUI, the German
travel giant
where he ran the
airline division
Christoph Mueller has not run another independent airline since Sabena failed, preferring to work in senior positions within large conglomerates such as DHL and TUI, the German travel giant where he ran the airline division

THOMAS MOLLOY

CHRISTOPH Mueller has a record that will send a chill down the spines of many Aer Lingus shareholders and employees.

Less than a decade ago, as the chief executive of another loss-making European airline, he provoked bitter strikes when he announced plans to shed 1,600 jobs at Belgium's Sabena airline. A year later it went bust.

To be fair to Mr Mueller, it is not clear whether anybody else could have done a better job than the 47-year-old German graduate of Harvard's famous management school.

Still, the parallels between Sabena and Aer Lingus today are eerie.

Both had management problems, were burning cash and had large shareholdings belonging to the government and a rival airline (Ryanair in the case of Aer Lingus and Swissair in the case of Sabena).

Sabena's attempts to save itself also resembled Aer Lingus, with both airlines slashing long-haul routes.

As investors wait for Mr Mueller to unveil his plans to turn around Aer Lingus, it will be interesting to see whether he adopts the strategy he deployed in Sabena of attracting customers willing to pay higher prices in exchange for more flexible reservations options.

Mr Mueller has not run another independent airline since Sabena failed, preferring to work in senior positions within large conglomerates such as DHL and TUI, the German travel giant where he ran the airline division but was not chief executive.

Now, as an airline boss, the German will once again have to battle with the peculiar obsession with airlines among both the Irish political class and the public, a hangover from the days when flag carriers were a symbol of national virility.

This is no mean task; Mr Mueller's Irish predecessor showed poor political antennae by scrapping the Shannon service and awarding himself a lucrative golden handshake.

Whether a foreigner can fare better than his Irish predecessors will be fascinating to watch.

Union leaders were quick to call for a long-term appointment following Dermot Mannion's unexpected resignation in April to ensure that the airline has a leader who will be around to see the results of his policies bear fruit, or otherwise.

Whether Mr Mueller is that man remains to be seen. He has a track record of hopping from company to company with almost bewildering speed.

It was not even clear yesterday whether he will move to Dublin when he becomes chief executive in October.



Roots

Mr Mueller's roots are no longer in Germany. He lived in Brussels while working for a string of high-profile German companies, because his three children live in the Belgian capital and his wife works there.

Time will tell whether history will repeat itself or whether the veteran of so many moves will finally settle down happily now that he once again has his own airline to play with.

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