MIAMI — Michael Wisbrun is the managing director of the SkyTeam alliance’s management team, overseeing the implementation of the governing board’s strategic vision. Under his leader, SkyTeam’s global presence has grown, with new members joining from a number of key global economic regions, now with relevant positions in the U.S., Europe and Asia Pacific. He spoke with Airways on topics including filling holes in the alliance’s network, balancing a diverse group of members and remaining relevant in a competitive landscape.
Airways: You completed the rollout of SkyPriority in 2014. Talk about what needed to happen to get all the SkyTeam members in line to achieve this?
Michael Wisbrun: Sky Priority service is our first design of the SkyTeam alliance, where all the members implemented the service in the airports where they operate. It includes priority check-in and boarding and a line to fast-track passport clearance. In the first phase, 1,000 airports were implemented. Our members have been aggressive in implementing it. Phase two was aligning Sky Priority to fast-track lanes. We are, step by step, implementing more initiatives in the next few years. Sky Priority is now a basic amenity for our top customers.
Air India chose to join the Star Alliance in 2014, even as India is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world for air travel. What is SkyTeam doing to fill that gap in its network?
What I shared with our CEOs is that our footprint is already global. We’re the biggest in the U.S., Europe and China. We won’t focus on network scale. Instead, we’re focusing on the customer experience. We have two holes in our network; one is in Brazil and the other is India. Brazil is covered by Gol, the biggest airline in the country, and both Delta and Air France/KLM have strategic partnerships with that airline, and more of our members are partnering with Gol, so we are filling that spot.
India is a large spot we haven’t filled yet. SkyTeam members are closely following this market. It’s a market that is is producing a lot of capacity and losses. If we’re making a choice, we need to choose a sustainable solution in India. We were not able to present to our board of CEOs a solution in the next five to 10 years, but continue to follow the market. As more capacity is added, there is no solution yet. But that can change in a few years.
Another hot spot in the world is the Middle East. Qatar Airways joined the oneworld alliance. You have Saudia and MEA, but what else are you doing to boost your presence in the region?
Our prospects for the time being are covered by Saudia. The Middle East hubs are the gateway to Africa, and [SkyTeam member] Kenya Airways is growing fast. For the time being, we’re not looking for another member to be added in this region. The Middle East has a number of relevant destinations, and they are covered by European and Asian carriers, along with Kenya Airways. We did not identify this region as a wide hole like India and Brazil. The Middle East is a hub-and-spoke regio, where a airline’s presence can be achieve with cooperation [agreements].
You added Garuda Indonesia to the alliance in March 2014. What does this airline bring to the table in building destinations within SkyTeam?
It’s a bridge for the huge markets of India and Brazil. Indonesia has great market potential. Our members are interested in linking within Indonesia, which has a huge market and a fast-growing economy. Garuda Indonesia adds huge market potential to our members. Members look to Garuda for connections in the region. There are 80 million potential customers, and Garuda brings our members a global footprint into Indonesia.
You have a diverse group of members that tend to have their own needs outside of the SkyTeam alliance. How do you balance the needs of the alliance versus the needs of individual members?
It’s all about a balancing act. Alliances only exist because better alternatives, like global consolidation, are not available. Look at the U.S., where consolidation started after deregulation in 1978. The U.S. now has four large carriers. The liberalization process started in Europe in the 1990s, which got airlines into new markets and took the borders away. The same process is taking place in Asia.
The globalization that has happened with other industries isn’t allowed with airlines. So the alliance platform serves a purpose and comes as close as possible to global consolidation, in terms of the effectiveness of our global market and footprint. That’s why alliances continue to exist. You do have different needs for different members in different situations.
Major ones like Delta and Air France/KLM and China Eastern/Korean Air have their own footprints and want to do their own joint ventures. And smaller members feeding into bigger systems are also relevant for their own networks. We play under different rules, but in the total scheme of things airlines are in SkyTeam to offer scale to passengers that they can’t in individual ways.
What were your biggest achievements in 2014?
What I shared with my CEOs, is that we more or less have completed our global footprint. That means we have scale and relevance in our network presences in the U.S., Europe, China and Asia. Garuda Indonesia completed our network despite one or two holes.
Our other achievements are all on customer experience side. We’ve focused on seamlessness for our customers making use of the SkyTeam global network. Phase one of our Sky Priority rollout was a major achievement. Second, we opened new SkyTeam-branded lounges in London and Istanbul, where our customers get a great experience. [We also opened] Sydney, and are planning to open lounges in Beijing, Hong Kong and Dubai this year.
One thing that’s extremely important is our SkyTeam transfer program. We have 24 million people are using at least one leg of a carrier from where they booked their ticket; for example, buying a Delta ticket and continue on China Eastern. We’re trying to make their journey a pleasant one, and where issues may occur, we’re investing resources in the SkyTeam transfer program. Making travel easier and seamless is a major achievement of the SkyTeam alliance.
What can you do to ensure that the SkyTeam remains relevant and appealing to both member airlines and passengers?
To start with our members, the world is changing. Consolidation is taking place and restructuring is the name of the game in different parts of the world. SkyTeam as a platform has value in connecting passengers and cooperation among members to create a global footprint. As you identified, the needs of our members are changing and are linked to where they are in their own development.
American and European carriers are in favor of us bridging the gap with Chinese members to create conditions for joint ventures. Bigger members look to us to bring value. But look at our Chinese members, where we are helping them professionalize their hub-and-spoke system. Carriers like China Southern and China Eastern have more to do at their airports to be more like Delta in Atlanta and KLM in Amsterdam. We want to help Chinese carriers get the basics right and develop services like U.S. and European carriers. The platform adds value to everyone’s needs in different forms and timing.
What are your top priorities for SkyTeam in 2015?
Our major priorities are the opening of the lounges in Beijing and Hong Kong. Second, under the SkyTeam transfer program is is PNR (passenger name record) servicing. If a customer is confronted with an operational issue on a member carrier, right now, rebooking is a cumbersome process. We are the first alliance to allow any member in any place the ability to change an itinerary up to the last 48 hours before a flight.
It’s a major recovery element that any employee at an airport can change the itinerary in the system of our member airlines. That is a major IT project. It’s a challenge within an airline, but between airline alliance members, it’s a major challenge. This will happen this year, and it will be a major achievement. We’re also working on implementing a multi-airline booking tool that allows passengers to use frequent-flyer points on different member carriers more seamlessly.