Friday, October 2, 2009

Tony Tyler's View from 37000 Feet

Writing travel stories and covering aviation gives me many chances to meet travel-biz executives, some of whom are high-flying visionaries and some of whom have trouble getting their ketchup to find their fries.

Tony Tyler, the CEO of Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways, is one of the good ones. I've interviewed him twice, once in San Francisco and once in his office-with-a-view in Cathay Pacific City, the airline's gleaming headquarters at Hong Kong International Airport. Both times he had interesting and insightful things to say, not just about his airline but about airlines and travel.

I flew last month around East Asia on Cathay and its affiliated carrier Dragonair. I didn't meet up with Tyler, but I did come across a speech he made to the annual Asian Aerospace conference, held this year in Hong Kong. If the agenda he sketched in that speech is followed in the real world, it will change the way we fly by reducing pollution from the world's jetliners and helping to harmonize the crazy-quilt of national and regional regulations by replacing them with a global set of standards. Guilt-free flying? Could happen.

Like everyone in travel, Tyler has a dismal take on the economy. "Hand on heart, I can say this is one of the most challenging times we have ever faced - and I know we are not alone ... I have been in the business for 30 years and seen many highs and lows, but the past year and a half is as bad as it's ever been.''

More to the point, what can be done about it? What has Cathay done about it?

The airline - founded in Hong Kong by two World War II vets in 1946 and now one of the major players in Asia - has reduced its number of flights and done everything it can to hedge fuel prices. Most airlines have done that. What most airlines have not done is keep their staff intact during the downturn. Cathay has done that, cutting salaries and inducing staffers to take unpaid leave, but avoiding morale-busting staff layoffs.

Happily, Cathay has - so far, at least - also avoided cutting back on the premium customer service that make it one of the planet's Tiffany carriers. Tyler pledges to keep it that way, even if the Great Recession changes the way people travel for years to come, as it may.

"One thing I do know is that Cathay Pacific will remain a premium carrier,'' he said. "High-yield business travel might not come back in the same way as before, but there will still be a place for airlines that differentiate in terms of the level of service they provide ... This is especially true in Asia, where people still expect some pampering and special attention on flights that, on average, are longer than those in Europe or in the U.S.''

More broadly, Tyler - this year's chairman of the International Air Transport Association, the global trade group for airlines - is promoting a badly needed 'green' agenda. In December 2007, Cathay followed the lead of British Airways, SAS and several North American carriers by introducing a voluntary carbon-offset program for passengers.

Now, Tyler and the airline industry is looking at what may come out of the climate-change summit scheduled for December in Copenhagen - and trying to modify or pre-empt regulation of airplane emissions. As Tyler correctly noted in his Hong Kong speech, IATA has adopted the ambitious goal of getting its 200-plus members to be carbon-neutral on their flights

"Airlines are the first global industry to make such a commitment, and this will require ongoing investment in fleet renewal, new airframes and engines, infrastructure, operations, biofuels and offset mechanisms such as emissions trading,'' Tyler says.

Of course, getting aviation operations that match high-flying rhetoric is complicated and time-consuming. The world's airlines are not there yet. And the British-born Tyler, like all corporate executives, has a duty to make a profit for shareholders that can be at odds with blue-sky goals. But, Tyler's lofty view from 37,000 feet comes closer to matching the realities on the ground than those of many of his compatriots. Aviation, and travel generally, need more like him.

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