New Air France CEO Brings Customer-Service Savvy

Air France gets its first female CEO.

Air France’s new CEO, Anne Rigail, a 20-year company veteran, made history in December when she became the first woman to lead a major international airline.

The tasks ahead of her are daunting: The company is currently facing contentious wage negotiations with pilots and crew, which have already led to a prolonged and devastating series of strikes. Rigail, 49, who will report to overall Air France-KLM boss Benjamin Smith, will also have to narrow the profitability gap with the more efficient Dutch carrier—a challenge none of her predecessors have been able to tackle since Air France acquired KLM in 2004.

“Air France as an airline has a strong brand and good long-haul products. It is the associated financial performance that is lacking,” says Chris Tarry, an analyst at aviation consulting firm CTAIRA. “The need is to materially improve productivity sufficiently quickly with the understanding that the airline is on its own. Whether this can be done without the adoption of what I call ‘precipice management’—looking over the edge and realizing that a change is necessary—remains to be seen.”

A graduate of Mines ParisTech university, Rigail joined regional carrier Air Inter (an Air France subsidiary) in 1991, and climbed the customer-service ranks to achieve management positions with Air France at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports in Paris. In 2013, she moved to Air France headquarters, where she was named executive vice president for In-flight Services and put in charge of flight attendants. In 2017, she was named Customer executive vice president.

Air France hopes that Rigail’s experience dealing with staff and customers will ease tensions with management and improve consumer trust. In 2018, due to disruptions and strikes, Air France’s revenue passenger kilometers, a standard airline industry measure, grew just 1.9%, compared to a gain of 4% at KLM.

To boost profits, the new CEO will have to find additional revenue while keeping down costs, says Tarry, noting, “in the near term, however, it is going to be tough if the threat of more strikes continues.”