Exclusive Interview with James Hogan AO

Insights from the Executive Chairman of Knighthood Global Ltd and Former Group CEO of Etihad Aviation Group

James Hogan Profile Photo


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

I have been in global travel and tourism for over 40 years. Most of that time has been focused on airlines, although I also spent time in hotels and the car rental business. I started out in Australia and then went on to senior executive positions at UK based bmi, and subsequently as CEO at Gulf Air and finally Etihad Airways in the Middle East. In Abu Dhabi, with a mandate from the government, I led the evolution of a new airline into a multi-billion-dollar aviation, travel and tourism group, achieving audited profits for five successive years. Leading an airline was an enormous privilege and honour; it was also an extremely exhilarating and dynamic business in which to work.

I am very fortunate now to continue my involvement in the industry, albeit in an advisory role, as the Chairman of Knighthood Global, the company I set up in 2017. We’re able to share our experience and expertise across a more varied canvas with governments, airlines and other aviation stakeholders supporting them to optimise their businesses and maximise the economic contribution to the regions in which they operate.

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

I spend a great deal of time travelling to meet current and new partners. This means listening, understanding, exploring and defining what their requirements are and how we can support them in what they want to achieve.

Currently we’re engaged in a few very interesting airline projects in Europe and Africa, which are keeping us busy.

In addition to that, we also looking at tech investments, which are aimed at carbon reduction in the industry, through electric and hybrid aircraft.

What three words would you use to describe your role?

Envision, Drive, Support

How would you define your leadership qualities?

For me, leadership primarily requires courage, commitment and loyalty. Those three aspects underpin all the other qualities which are important for leadership. The leadership requires vision, support and care to draw and nurture people along on the journey.

What are you most proud of in your career?

The transformation of Etihad Airways from a small airline into a multibillion dollar travel and tourism group. I was given a mandate to create the best airline in the world, one that was best in class, safe and one which would support Abu Dhabi’s economic growth and diversification away from oil. Over the course of my 11-year tenure this is what we achieved.

I was very grateful that my role was recognised with awards from many organisations in the industry, but especially proud to receive the Order of Australia, for ‘distinguished services to the aviation transport industry, to the development of tourism and trade linkages between Australia and the Gulf States, and to international airline associations’.

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

I am in the best industry, and wouldn’t change.

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

We need ongoing improvement in aircraft technology to connect the world efficiently. Greater employee development and upskilling to create a fit for purpose aviation workforce.

Having had a big hand in shaping aviation in the Middle East during your time helming Etihad, how do you see the future of aviation in the Middle East?

The last figures I saw confirm that airlines internationally are operating at 90 per cent of their pre-pandemic capacity.  But as usual changes are on the way driven by emerging new markets and hubs, new technology, and of course the environment agenda.

China is back and will inevitably gain momentum. But for the Middle East region, the biggest impacts are going to come from the new developments in Indian aviation if everything goes ahead as planned. Aviation in the world’s most populous country has consolidated and refocused, and you now have an Air India with a bold new restructuring strategy, huge fleet plans and ambitious intentions to connect India to major markets, not necessarily over the Gulf as before. The Gulf is also undergoing some big changes, not the least of which is the emergence of new airlines in Saudi Arabia, which promise to ensure an invigorated competitive dynamic. The once dominant legacy airlines now also face strong competition from low-cost carriers which are now embedded in this region where they have driven the introduction of new pricing models. Another factor to consider is the as yet untapped but enormous potential and opportunity of the African markets for the Middle East as a gateway. I think it’s all very exciting and positive.

What are the biggest challenges for the aviation industry ahead?

Having been decimated by the pandemic, airlines are now scrambling to meet pent up demand – this time with a diminished workforce and scaled back capacity and networks, all amidst ongoing global economic volatility. The challenges are not new but significant.

We face enormous challenges on the climate front. The industry was one of the first to set a collective goal and joint action plans despite its relatively modest two percent contribution to overall global carbon emissions. We have moved on since then to an even more ambitious zero carbon target for 2050. If we are to be successful, we’ll have to deepen our commitment and accelerate the implementation of our plans, whether through greater improvements in fuel efficiency, or the increased use of sustainable aviation fuels on a commercial scale, or further down the line, the use of electric or hybrid propelled aircraft.

The other significant challenge will be developing and empowering a new fit for purpose workforce. During Covid, airlines, airport and other aviation organisations shrunk to survive what was a brutal time. The rapid recovery of passenger numbers confirms what we have always known: Aviation is a global force for good - people want and need to travel. Aviation is here to stay.

We have to re-equip the industry rapidly and build up its workforce with the right people and right skills. But we have a unique opportunity to shape the modern airline workforce. Greater investment in training and development, especially for the green economy, will be money well spent in retaining top talent, creating a more efficient organisation and delivery of a better customer experience.

In some emerging markets, this means starting from scratch to create meaningful jobs for airline professionals and the creation of a local workforce of aviation, travel and tourism professionals.

What are the biggest opportunities for the aviation industry ahead?

How we interact with AI and other new technologies to shape the future of the industry.

Historically it’s been capital intensive industry with very low margins. We’ve made some progress but not enough. The average profit per passenger is still only USD2.25 (IATA). This doesn’t make sense. New technology offers an opportunity to revisit this.

Ongoing research and development in aircraft technology offers new opportunities for carbon free flights with less environmental impact.

New markets and geopolitical shifts will always offer new opportunities. Regions to watch are both China and India, along with ambitions in Saudi Arabia. While resource rich, Africa lags behind in connectivity internationally to its key markets and within the continent, offering enormous opportunity and potential for future development.

What innovations do you think the industry needs?

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to explore new ways of collaboration and cooperation to simplify, optimise and synchronise the way we do things. Done correctly, this can take out inefficiency, complexity, and cost while creating a better business which provides better service .

The industry needs to increase its use of tech-driven innovation to underpin its commercial strategy and CRM, once and for all get its cost base under control, its manpower response and address its environmental challenges. There are countless areas where this can be applied so I will mention only a few examples.

  • AI and big data can be used to inform better decision making and tailor service offer
  • Blockchain and IATA’s new distribution paradigm will change interaction with customers and distributors
  • Interaction with other travel and tourism organisations and data in the cloud
  • Evolution of aircraft and engine technology will reduce costs, enhance efficiency and minimise environmental impacts.

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

Partnership and consolidation are now typical for successful carriers. Operating in isolation is increasingly unique. While these partnerships take various forms, the fact that the traditional airline alliances still exist and continue to grow confirms their relevance and value. In some cases, the traditional alliance model is ‘bolted on’ and used in addition to existing commercial partnerships or equity shareholdings. This means greater network depth, and cost efficiencies for airlines with more flight options, choice and greater loyalty benefits for customers.

What is your philosophy for steering a company?

A shared vision of excellence which creates commitment, loyalty and energy.

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

A positive, open culture where everyone is and feels valued and is compensated for the work they are contributing to the shared vision.

What kind of transparency should a CEO exhibit?

Transparency and frequent personal communication are fundamental in leading a company – with the shareholder, the leadership team, the workforce, and the greater industry and customers. Transparency takes everyone along the same journey, creates buy in and supports engagement with all stakeholders. Transparency is also the basis of accountability and compliance.