The trade association of the world’s airlines,IATA, is holding its annual meeting in Istanbul this week.
The event brings together global airline CEOs and industry leaders to discuss the issues impacting the sector.
CNN’s Richard Quest sat down for one-on-one interviews with key leaders of several major airlines to analyze the current state of the aviation industry.
Major themes of his discussions included the ongoing war in Ukraine, strikes in France over pension reform, and China’s reopening after several years of travel restrictions.
Riyadh Air CEO talks launch as new national airline
Riyadh Air is a planned second flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, based in the capital city.
Quest spoke to its CEO Tony Douglas about what purpose the new airline will serve.
“The most important thing for the world’s second fastest growing economy is world class connectivity,” Dougal explained. “At the moment, the capital city Riyadh is heavily point to point dominated. We don’t serve our Kingdom well enough for our citizens, but also there’s up to $4 trillion being spent on global destination attractions, and we want to allow the world ease of passage to the Kingdom.”
When asked how Riyadh Air plans to compete with Saudia Airlines, the current flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, Douglas responded: “Saudia is the sister national carrier of the Kingdom… Were talking about a country that’s half the size of western Europe, it needs a lot better connectivity as part of an economic diversification plan by 2030. We’ll connect to over 100 cities all around the region, all around the world, fundamental to our economic growth.”
The airline unveiled its official livery this week, which Douglas called “super exciting.”
“What you’re seeing there is a statement of a brand that allows us to tell a story,” he explained. “You’d probably expect to see that on a high-end private jet. And the story is of course this: it’s a full-service carrier, it will set new standards in terms of an obsession to guest service and a digital twist to all of that.”
Qatar Airways CEO says aviation industry will miss 2050 net zero target:
The CEO of Qatar Airways described the airline industry’s emissions goals as a “PR exercise,” saying aviation is on track to miss its target to achieve net zero status in 2050.
Akbar Al Baker spoke to CNN on the day IATA announced a roadmap to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Let us not fool ourselves,” Al Baker told CNN’s Richard Quest. “We will not even reach the targets we have for 2030, I assure you. Because there is not enough raw material to get the volumes of SAF [sustainable aviation fuel].”
IATA has pledged to boost the use of SAF by 2030, with a goal of becoming net zero in 2050.
However, Al Baker insists the industry’s targets are unrealistic, given the current volumes of SAF being produced, and says the airline industry is in denial about the rate of progress.
“What we are trying to do is for a PR exercise saying that it will happen, and it will be done, it will be achieved – but it won’t be able to be achieved,” he told CNN. “And the governments will use this to line their pockets by putting [on] levies.”
Al Baker is one of the longest-serving and most influential executives in the airline industry, and previously served as IATA’s chair. Despite his skepticism on the industry’s current emissions targets, he still believes that net zero is achievable.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to do it in the  time frame, the industry is far behind.”
IATA Director General on the impact of Russia-Ukraine war, French strikes, China reopening on global aviation:
IATA Director General Willie Walsh told Quest that he doesn’t expect any changes to Russian airspace restrictions any time in the foreseeable future.
“We would all like to see Russian airspace reopen for everybody, clearly that would require peace in Ukraine. We want to see that war ended and we want a return to normal,” he said.
“The idea that we see Russian airspace open in the near term, I don’t think that’s going to be possible so we’ll have to live with that, airlines have had to adopt their schedule to recognize they are going to have to take a longer route between Europe and Asia and I think it will have some impact for some time.”
Walsh also hit out against ongoing air traffic control strikes in France.
“In Europe, the resources are there. But the issue that we face particularly from an [air traffic control] point of view is French air traffic control going on strike every day. And when France goes on strike, it disrupts traffic right across Europe.”
He continued, “What we’re pushing for is for France to facilitate overflights. So if the French want to shut their country down, fine. Let them shut their country down. But it’s the idea that they can shut Europe down that is causing problems. Because once France goes on strike, you can’t overfly the country, and then it’s putting pressure on air traffic control systems around France – and that’s causing delays and cancellations in other areas. It’s chaos.”
When discussing the aviation sector in Asia Pacific, Walsh stated that he was surprised by how quickly China reopened after years of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“We weren’t expecting China to open in January of this year… So the recovery is ahead of where we had expected. International travel within Asia Pacific is still at only 56% of where it was in 2019. So there’s still ground to make up there, but it is recovering.”
On the state of the wider aviation industry, Walsh insisted he wanted his message to be one of “quiet confidence in the future.”
He acknowledged that airline profitability margins remain razor thin, but “given the losses that we’d incurred in recent years, to be back in profit is a great achievement.”
Air France-KLM CEO discusses ongoing closure of Russian airspace, French strikes, sunsetting of A380s:
The CEO of Air France-KLM Benjamin Smith also spoke about the impact of not being able to fly over Russia.
Smith said, “The range and the capacity requirements for planes from Europe to be able to reach their destinations in Asia is 2 to 3 hours longer than before. So a plane that could have been optimal before this war in Ukraine started may not be the case today.”
When asked if he was writing off flying over Russia for the foreseeable future, he replied “that is our assumption.”
Smith also stated that he does not support the ongoing air traffic controller strikes in France.
“The French air traffic controller strike, we don’t support. Whether it’s high altitude, or whether it’s take off and landing in the French region. This has been a real challenge for us for the last five months. Our belief is, this needs to reduce or this needs to stop… Some days we have to reduce up to 30% of our flights in Paris with no notice – it’s been a challenge ever since this retirement reform has come in. We’ve managed our staff quite well, we’ve not been internally affected by what we’ve seen across the country especially in transportation when it comes to strikes,” he said.
When asked whether he was tempted to take a stand against the French retirement reform bill, Smith responded that he was “okay” with it: “It was very well thought through, a lot of debate a lot of exemptions. When I talk specifically about our company…We’ve got enough protection that the impact is quite minimal.”
He also discussed Air France’s move to permanently remove A380s from its fleet, explaining that the plane is “too big…That one is a tough plane to make money with.”