Wednesday 21 November 2018

Herr Mueller: here for the long haul

Aer Lingus has flown into turbulence over its pension scheme, but its colourful German boss has won respect for his rescue of the airline. Kim Bielenberg reports

Flying high: Christoph Mueller, pictured here with cabin crew, has turned Aer Lingus into one of Europe’s most profitable airlines
Flying high: Christoph Mueller, pictured here with cabin crew, has turned Aer Lingus into one of Europe’s most profitable airlines
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Christoph Mueller, the German chief executive of Aer Lingus, is a man used to escaping from perilous situations. Of all the airline's staff, he must be one of the few who has actually survived a plane crash.

As a young man, he was piloting a single-seater plane when it got into difficulties. He had to bail out and plummeted earthwards.

There was an agonising delay before his parachute opened just seconds before he hit the ground .

Mueller escaped with minor injuries and is said to keep a small piece of the wreckage in his home.

When he became boss of our national flag carrier in 2009 we were in the middle of our own economic crash, and many felt Aer Lingus was doomed. It had accumulated losses of €100m, and some felt it might go the way of such names as Swiss Air and Sabena. Flag carriers may be seen as signs of national virility, but they have no God-given right to exist – and many have disappeared.

Five years on, and Mueller is being credited with not only keeping Aer Lingus in the air, but turning it into one of the most profitable airlines in Europe, with substantial cash reserves.

The short-haul operations are static, and the staff pension fund is in heavy deficit, but the long-haul business is thriving. Mueller is trying to turn Dublin into a hub for passengers travelling between Europe and America.

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary may dismiss his smaller rival as a "Mickey mouse airline", but in some ways he has met his match in Mueller, the plain-speaking, heavy smoking former officer of the German army.

Although much less confrontational than his Ryanair counterpart, Mueller can give as good as he gets and is not afraid to ridicule his rival. Ryanair owns almost 30pc of the shares in Aer Lingus.

When he was recently asked at a conference about Ryanair's bid to introduce a more touchy-feely customer service approach, he said Aer Lingus had first-mover advantage: "We moved 77 years ago."

O'Leary, for his part, has noted that he himself was paid €1.2m a year for carrying 80 million passengers, while Mueller gets €1.3m for carrying nine million.

When Mueller joined Aer Lingus five years ago he felt there was an inferiority complex about Ryanair – and that Aer Lingus was trying to be a "me too" airline.

He said in an interview later: "Every second sentence was starting 'but Ryanair does this, Ryanair does that'.

"It was an obsession that has largely disappeared. If you copy somebody, you are fighting for the same ground. We now have our own ground."

Mueller's medicine for Aer Lingus has certainly been tough, including 600 redundancies, the closure of many of the airline's offices, and a cull of unpopular routes. He believes customers are prepared to pay €20-€30 more for better service and to be taken to a more convenient airport.

He may have faced another bout of turbulence in recent days over the threat of strike action over the pension scheme in the run-up to St Patrick's Day, but he is known for staying calm in such situations.

His leadership qualities must have been spotted early on when he did his army service in Germany. Most young Germans of his generation had to spend 15 months in the defence forces, but the young man from the Rhineland decided to do things differently.

He chose to serve for two years and became an officer. As a 20-year-old, he was selected to command a platoon that carried nuclear warheads across the country. It was not the sort of job normally given to such a young soldier. Ever since, he has been involved in transport and logistics of one type or another – from post and freight to tourism and aviation.

After his discharge, he trained as an accountant and studied for an MBA at the University of Cologne before joining Lufthansa.

He rose up through the ranks in a succession of companies before becoming chief executive of Sabena, the Belgian state-owned airline that collapsed after 9/11.

Analysts said he could not have possibly saved the airline, which was beset by financial troubles. So, it did not count as a black mark against him when he was later in the running for the top job at Aer Lingus

Visitors to his office at Dublin Airport are struck by an atmosphere of almost monastic calm, with no phones ringing or computers distracting the airline boss.

"I believe the company pays me to think," he has said of his leadership style. "Not to answer emails."

Some believe he is merely in transit at Aer Lingus, and like one of his predecessors Willie Walsh will move on to one of the big European airlines to apply his skills as a turnaround specialist.

Others believe he has gone native. At one airline conference he was asked about his bright green socks. Even the man from Ryanair laughed when Mueller replied with a Michael O'Leary-type flourish: "You haven't seen my underwear yet."

When he was appointed, his wife Florence, a former long-haul pilot, and his children stayed on in their home in Brussels and he shuttled to and from Belgium. But the family has has put down firm roots in Howth on Dublin's northside.

Away from business, his big project has been his garden, and he has tried to breed his own variety of rose. At home, he likes to peruse history books and volumes about the wildflowers of the Burren.

Even his union critics have a grudging respect for the fact that he has kept Aer Lingus alive and kept it from the clutches of Ryanair.

When he arrived he tried to build consensus by going out and meeting staff and talking to them about their concerns.

One executive familiar with the internal workings of Aer Lingus said: "I think he is quite frustrated by our confrontational approach to industrial relations in Ireland.

"It is a very challenging job with Ryanair as a shareholder on one side, the Government owning 25pc, and then you also have to deal with the unions."

"He knows how to be hard-headed with Ryanair, the Government and the unions, and make it plain to his management team what he wants."

Although he seems to have developed a strong affection for Ireland and also serves as chairman of An Post, he is not afraid to criticise our way of doing things.

"A lot of tough decisions have been avoided or fudged," he said earlier this year. " The cost of living in Ireland is still alarmingly high relative to many major economies."

He is a strong believer in work apprenticeships, and has revived a training scheme for mechanics at the airline. And he recently expressed puzzlement that he has to pay a TV licence even though he never watches television.

Aer Lingus staff may be fighting with Mueller to keep their gilt-edged pensions, but many will quietly admit that they hope the German stays on to fight the company's corner and keep the planes in the air.

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