Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who is Giovanni Bisignani?

After writing yesterday's post about the extent to which the problems surrounding the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano constituted a case study of what happens when the world of bits bumps into the world of atoms, I found myself wondering just who Giovanni Bisignani is and what the organization he leads, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), actually serves. My wondering was further fueled this morning when I realized, while reading the Al Jazeera English account of the current state of play, that Bisignani's "European mess" comment was still reverberating in the news media. So, in the immortal words of Butch Cassidy, who are these guys?

Let us begin on the objective front and gradually work our way to matters more personal. Here is the summarizing paragraph from the About Us page from the IATA Web site:

IATA is an international trade body, created over 60 years ago by a group of airlines. Today, IATA represents some 230 airlines comprising 93% of scheduled international air traffic. The organization also represents, leads and serves the airline industry in general.

As I see it, the key subtext in this statement is that IATA represents corporate interests, rather than the interests of either the industry's customers or its workers. In other words it is the vehicle through which the shareholders call the shots, whether or not their decisions are in the best interests of either customers or employees.

Having established whom IATA serves, we may now turn our attention to how Bisignani serves IATA. It turns out that he is definitely a man from the world of bits. His biography page has much to say about his innovative use of technology to streamline operations in the interest of greater efficiency, which is to say better cost effectiveness and a higher return on investment. As might be imagined, he is one of those "new management" products who can drop into any corporate setting, regardless of what that corporation's business actually is. Put another way, he has never been "in the trenches" (or, perhaps more appropriately, in the cockpit) with those whose work practices are most necessary in the transportation of both people and goods through the air over long distances.

Another point of interest is that, while I was gathering my background material, I visited Bisignani's biography page on the IATA Web site. As I continued my gathering, I navigated away from that page; but when I started working on the preceding paragraph, I could not get back to it! I can think of two explanations:

  1. Others with better qualifications in journalism than I have been piqued by the same question. As a result, the site is now loaded with more traffic than it can bear. The squeaky wheel that has been making the most noise is now getting more hits than its server can handle. (This would be consistent with the problems I had navigating to other informative pages while writing this.)
  2. The more paranoid explanation is that there was a frantic decision to change the "spin" of Bisignani's biography page, as well as the other mission-related pages I was trying to reach with the same lack of success.

Writing that paragraph bought me a bit of time, which was enough to refute the second explanation. The biography page has not been changed, so it looks as if I was just competing with a lot of equally curious traffic. So I now can provide support paragraphs for some of my claims. Here are two about his accomplishments:

In 2004, under Mr. Bisignani’s leadership, IATA began Simplifying the Business - bringing convenience to travelers and cost reduction to airlines through effective use of technology. The program's headline e-ticketing initiative eliminated paper tickets globally on 1June 2008. And the cargo equivalent - IATA e-freight - is modernizing the industry by removing cumbersome paper documentation.

Mr. Bisignani has engaged airports and air navigation service providers to build a new business partnership with a common goal of cost-efficiency. This has delivered billions of dollars in savings. Meanwhile, the Association’s calls for transparency and effective economic regulation of monopoly suppliers are positively impacting legislation around the globe.

Regarding my claims about his background, here are the relevant paragraphs:

Mr. Bisignani’s career prior to joining IATA spans several industries. He launched the European travel portal Opodo and spent five years as CEO and Managing Director of Alitalia. During this time he also served on the IATA Board of Governors. He has been a Member of Pratt & Whitney Advisory Board and Chairman of Galileo International. Mr. Bisignani began his career with Citibank and then held several high-level positions at the energy company ENI and with the Italian industrial conglomerate IRI Group. He served as President of Tirrenia di Navigazione, the largest Italian ferry company and as CEO & Managing Director of SM Logistics, a group of logistics and freight forwarding companies partially owned by GE.

Mr. Bisignani studied both in Italy (Rome) and the United States (Harvard Business School). In June 2008, Mr. Bisignani received the honorary degree ‘Doctor of Science honoris causa’ by the School of Engineering at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. Born in Rome in 1946, he speaks Italian, English and Spanish. He is married with one daughter and enjoys golf, tennis and riding.

Apparently, when it comes to "recreational transportation," he prefers horses to amateur piloting.

It all comes down to the usual question, this time as it applies to the safety of individuals. Whom are you going to believe? Do you accept the judgment of pilots and the experts they consult to determine how much risk is involved in getting, for example, from London to New York; or do you heed the strident voice of a bean counter par excellence who may never have even seen the inside of a cockpit?

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