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Benjamin Smith / Air Canada

Unions angry new Air France CEO isn’t French

It is “inconceivable”, unions say, that Air France-KLM would name Air Canada COO Benjamin Smith.

Appointing an outsider at the helm of France’s national airline has brought a sharp backlash from French unions, CNN reports.

It is “inconceivable” that Air France-KLM would name Benjamin Smith, currently chief operating officer at Air Canada, as its new chief executive, unions have protested in a statement.

“Other countries and governments show fierce protectionism when it comes to their airlines. How […] could we allow Air France to fall into foreign hands?” the statement exclaimed.

Smith was named for the top job yesterday, and the French state, which owns 14.3% of the airline group, backed the appointment. He will be Air France’s first foreign CEO in its 85-year history.

The group has been deliberating for months over who to appoint after the resignation of the former chief, Jean-Marc Janaillac, at a time when strikes were costing it more than €300 million.

Known negotiator
Smith is known for leading Air Canada into an international expansion while also heading negotiations with unions of pilots and cabin crew that led to long-term labour agreements.

It is perhaps this that is making unions nervous, with Philippe Evain, president of the pilot union SNPL, complaining about Smith’s “limited knowledge” of Air France.

But airline analysts are optimistic, with Daniel Roeska, an analyst at Bernstein, telling CNN: “The Air France unions have taken a very adversarial role here […] which ironically may just indicate how good that choice actually is.”

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