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Aviation Leadership: Strategic Lessons from a Warzone

April 21, 2020
About the author Kian T. GouldKian T. Gould
CEO & Founder AOE, Chairman Omnevo

“The word ‘survival’ seems to be ever present whenever crisis management is discussed. That is not a state to aspire to.” This quote from book author Louai Al Roumani offers astounding insights into what airlines and airports can learn from crisis management in Syria and why this is important for future strategies. Roumani directed strategy at Syria’s largest private bank, BBSF, throughout the current conflict – including IS blowing up his bank branches, frequent mortar attacks and constant kidnap threats. He knows how to think in a real crisis. As we survey the diverse reactions seen across the airline industry, perhaps we could take his advice and shift our perspective a little?

Roumani’s book on his experiences – ‘Lessons from A Warzone’ – (published 2 April, Portfolio Penguin), shares his extraordinary story and, from reading a pre-launch interview (The Times, London), I think it could help every company leader.

Kian Gould

Kian Gould

CEO & Gründer / AOE
Forward-thinking airlines have adopted Omnichannel approaches that are continuing to drive ancillary revenues right now, even with passengers grounded and isolated. When the next crisis hits, an Omnichannel strategy can create the opportunity for airlines to think well beyond ‘survival’."

Two pieces of advice

There are two pieces of advice he shares that really resonated for me in relation to the stunned response of the airline industry to the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Lesson 1: Why ‘Survival’ isn’t a healthy strategy…
    Having operated his business within a few miles of IS positions and been under mortar fire on a number of occasions, Roumani has an interesting perspective on ‘survival’:  ‘Survival’ is a word featuring in much of the airport and airline industries’ commentary in responding to the COVID-19 impact, which is understandably focused on the unprecedented damage.

    In his Times’ interview, Roumani actually discusses the example of airlines sending their staff doom-laden memos on the battle for ‘the survival’ of their business. Combined with lay-off letters, how inspiring is that to airline management teams that need to deal with today’s scenario but also need to be looking ahead?

    Of course, we need to be realistic about this huge threat but we also need to have hope – and planning – that goes beyond today and goes further than simply aiming for ‘survival’ for the business.

    Thankfully, not all airlines are in that despondent mode. Even in this darkest hour, Delta and Virgin, for example, have been sharing messages of jointly and voluntarily helping reduce cash burn, the taking of unpaid leave and senior management salary cuts to try find a way through this.

    Whatever crisis we face, we need to face it with the knowledge that we’ve done our absolute best to create a business model that not only optimizes performance in normal times but also provides as much strength as possible when the next crisis hits. How many airlines have done that?
  2. Lesson 2: ‘Don’t overplan’...
    Operating in a fast-changing warzone, Roumani found the bank’s management obsessed with planning for dozens of possible scenarios that could affect their operations, including speculating on timeframes, shifts in the conflict, etc. Despite all their brainstorming, they missed the incredibly rare scenario that came next – not a U.S. invasion, not peace talks… a snowstorm, an incredibly rare event in Syria! The lesson? Focus more on the questions and strategies and on the things that you can control and influence.

    Of course, some might say that COVID-19 was the airline industry’s equivalent of Roumani’s snowstorm – no one saw it coming. After all, if even the WHO wasn’t fully prepared for a global pandemic, then we can’t be too surprised that airlines didn’t plan for it either! The scale and suddenness of this crisis are unique but we must still see that the crises of the past – including SARS – are lessons that need to be heeded. 

    Also, not all airlines are facing the same level of exposure. Some LCCs, for example, operate on business models that probably won’t survive a month of no revenue or two months of half-normal revenue, let alone the more prolonged shutdown that now looks inevitable. They are operating an inherently naïve and unstable model, with over-leveraged companies basing their business on ever-growing demand and endless bull markets. 

    As such, you don’t actually need to guess the exact nature of a future crisis, but you do need to focus on the things you can control that will help to build crisis resistance into your business model, particularly your ancillary revenue drivers

Optimize revenue – crisis or no crisis!

For many airlines, Roumani’s lessons need to be learnt from the COVID-19 crisis – just as they perhaps should have been learnt from earlier crises – particularly as the fault lines in the traditional ancillary revenue model become ever-more apparent whenever new pressure is inflicted. Right now, that outdated model is parked up alongside the grounded planes – going nowhere, delivering no revenue.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Even passengers grounded and isolated can continue to provide a revenue stream. Forward-thinking airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa have adopted Omnichannel approaches that are continuing to drive ancillary revenues right now, creating revenue and maintaining the customer relationship. 

Customers want an Omnichannel experience that is available 24/7 on their mobiles and laptops. They want a seamless experience that meets their need for pre-planned purchases, leading brands across a hugely expanded range of product categories, personalized offers, convenient delivery options, etc. Before the next crisis, more airlines must respond by developing as lifestyle brands that reach their customers in more ways, delivering these needs and driving revenue and loyalty. 

By integrating digitally into their daily lives, the airline transforms its revenue opportunity from a fleeting, vague opportunity that is tied to the ‘Golden Hour’ of the passengers being in their seats to a 24/7 opportunity. 

When the next crisis hits – and it will – the Omnichannel strategy cannot provide total immunity from the fallout, but at least it creates the opportunity for the airline to think well beyond ‘survival’.


How airlines can regain trust, loyalty and revenue by taking control of the digital customer journey.

December’s World Aviation Festival in London was a great opportunity to bring the industry together and, although attendance was inevitably lower than normal, there was a strong conference program that carried a mood of guarded optimism. Best of all, I was delighted to see just how strongly the focus was on real action to drive ancillary revenue and recovery.  Much of 2021 has been spent waiting for a recovery to be established and many airlines have understandably been hesitant (or unable) to commit to new investment or major change in their customer operations. The long hoped-for recovery has been impossible to forecast accurately and many airlines opted to simply ‘hunker down’ and wait until a clearer path can be seen through the storm. That strategy carries deep risks. We now face a new phase of crisis as Omicron sadly develops its global presence but the fact is that the world will continue to turn, people will continue to travel, the crisis will eventually recede, and traffic will return. Airlines need to be preparing right now to create the customer experience that the recovery will demand.  Yes, the picture of how the 2022 travel market will look in recovery is still blurred right now - but the key point is that we do already know exactly what the returning customer looks like and what they want. We have a clear understanding of the experience they want - and we have the digital tools to deliver that experience.