New €3.3m Air France CEO already provoking debate

Canadian Benjamin Smith is causing debate and further conflict among Air France unions

The new CEO of Air France, Canadian Benjamin Smith, is causing distress and opposition among unions even before he steps into the role, not only for his €3.3m salary, but also for his nationality.

Mr Smith, who was previously number two at Air Canada, has been announced as the airline’s new CEO. It follows months of uncertainty after the departure of the former head, Jean-Marc Janaillac, in May.

Minister for the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, has supported Mr Smith’s appointment, saying that he has “experience and knowledge in the airline sector...to allow Air France to stand up to international challenges...this is excellent news for Air France”.

Mr Smith’s salary is expected to be €3.3m per year, at a time when Air France has seen months of strikes over pay. This is also three times’ more than the salary of his predecessor, Mr Janaillac.

Union heads at the airline are not happy with the announcement, and have suggested future strikes may be called.

They have disputed the idea of a Canadian being at the head of the French flag carrier, and fear that Mr Smith’s role as dual CEO of the Air France-KLM umbrella group will lead him to favour KLM pilots over those at Air France.

A press release from nine unions read: “It is inconceivable that the Air France company, French since 1933, would fall into the hands of a foreign leader."

In July, all but one of the unions called off ongoing strikes over pay, pending the new CEO announcement, stating that “it would be more effective to wait for the appropriate contact”.

The main dispute among the cross-group unions - including pilot organisations (SNPL, Alter), ground staff (CGT, FO and SUD), and air stewards (SNPNC, Unsa-PNC, CFTC, SNGAF) - centres on pay.

The unions have demanded a pay rise of 5-6%, which, they say, accounts for backdated payments and inflation. Yet, Air France has only offered 1-3%, saying it cannot match the unions’ demands.

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