Exclusive Interview with Jaan Albrecht

In an exclusive interview, Jaan Albrecht, a veteran of the aviation industry, shares personal anecdotes from his nearly five-decade-long journey. Dive into his insightful perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry.

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Where are you now and how did you get here? Can you tell us a bit about your journey and where has your career and life taken you?

My career started 49 years ago as an airline pilot in Mexico. In addition to the flying duties, I moved up the ranks, initially in middle management positions and at a young age in senior management assignments. The breakthrough happened exactly 30 years ago when I was offered my first CEO position in an airline in Peru. Since then, I have enjoyed CEO positions in major airlines and airline alliances in Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Having retired from active executive responsibilities, I am currently enjoying non-executive mandates, sitting on the supervisory and advisory boards of 3 airlines and an aviation consulting company.

What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?

I am now enjoying all the other great things in life beyond active management duties, spending time with family and friends, daily sports activities, traveling, reading, etc. At the same time, I am staying active in the airline industry in an advisory capacity through the board of directors’ mandates. It is now the time to share my experience and learnings acquired over the last 49 years in the aviation industry with the new generation of managers and make them aware of the do’s and don'ts that drive airline successes and failures.

What three words would you use to describe your role?

Advise, share, caution.

How would you define your leadership qualities?

Build, support, motivate, and communicate with your team, think strategically, take calculated risks, and make decisions, as tough as these sometimes are.

What are you most proud of in your career?

To have saved thousands of airline jobs through tough restructuring and transformation plans in several airlines.

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?

It would be a young copilot who has just started a hopefully long, exciting, and successful career in the airline industry.

What is on your wish list for your next five years from here?

Stay healthy to be able to support today’s new management generation to lead successful airlines into the future.

You spent many years as the CEO of the STAR Alliance. Do you think that these multilateral alliances still have relevance, or, have they lost their way? We see more airlines outside of their alliances work bilaterally with each other rather than within their alliances. For example, the deep relationship between Qantas (oneworld) and Emirates (non-aligned) is unusual, given that Qatar is a fellow oneworld member. Any thoughts around this?

Airline alliances have been beneficial to their members for almost 30 years now, during the good and the difficult times in our industry. Particularly during the really challenging times, like 9/11, the financial crisis in 2008, and COVID, individual member airlines were supported by their alliance partners, and everybody benefited from creative multilateral and bilateral initiatives which allowed them to better steer through these difficult times. Support and be supported by your partners has proven to be of great value within the alliance, and I am very confident that the learnings of these experiences will be much needed during the next crisis in our industry. Member airlines have spent much effort and money in creating a seamless travel experience for its customers by integrating their frequent flyer programs, common lounges, through check-in, transfer of bags, etc. Frequent travelers, both on business or leisure trips, have come to appreciate this global alliance experience, generating additional revenues and value to the alliance members.

What are the biggest challenges for the aviation industry ahead?

Huge investments in new technologies to reduce emissions. Global political developments, including the escalation of armed conflicts. Increase of aviation-related taxes. High fuel prices.

What are the biggest opportunities for the aviation industry ahead?

Use of new technologies to cut costs and to contribute to lower carbon emissions. Use of digital solutions and innovations, including artificial intelligence. Consolidation of airlines, particularly in Europe and Asia.

What innovations do you think the industry needs?

A new generation of aircraft, using innovative technologies to substantially reduce fuel consumption. Development of large aircraft capable of operating long distances with alternative propulsion methods, like electric or hydrogen-powered engines.

Do you think that traditional airline alliances still have relevance in today’s aviation landscape?

The 3 big global airline alliance systems will continue playing a relevant role in the industry for the foreseeable future, driven by customer acceptance and by airline members value generation.

What is your philosophy for steering a company?

Agree on a vision and mission for the company, draft a clear business strategy, and communicate it to all employees. Establish clear goals for everybody to implement it step by step and follow up. Celebrate successes. Empower staff to take decisions. “I prefer colleagues asking for forgiveness instead of asking for permission.”

What kind of culture do you like to promote in your company?

Safety first! Transparent, continuous, and open-door communication with management and staff, honesty, fairness, respect, give and take feedback, everybody is innocent until proven the opposite.

What kind of transparency should a CEO exhibit?

For a team to be effective and efficient, the CEO needs to communicate openly and continuously, the good news and the bad news. Transparency is essential for the team to understand where they stand individually and collectively.

What leadership qualities have you found to be most important in your journey?

High integrity with strong values. High energy and performance-driven. Strategic thinker. Talent developer. Team builder and team player. Cultural awareness and respect. “Walk the talk.”

What hiring strategy do you use to recruit the best talent for your organization?

Invest to identify and develop high-performance talent from within the organization. Promote internal rotation of high-potential individuals to learn from other business units and prepare them for higher responsibility positions. To get an outside-in view, recruit high performers from competitors and other non-related businesses to drive innovation and best practice.