At the end of 2012 Mike Ambrose, 67, will retire as director general of ERA after serving more than 25 years in the post. The ERA board has approved the elevation of Simon McNamara, 40, to the role from his current position as deputy director general.
“When I joined ERA the industry was in a position where the commercial opportunities had been unleashed, with the prospect of total freedoms in the near future,” Ambrose told AIN. “During the first half of my time we enjoyed growth rates that were nearly always double those of the major airlines. However, in the latter years we’ve had to make radical changes at ERA’s directorate, metamorphosing from one that could rely on strong representation from member experts, to undertaking more and more activities by the directorate team itself, as members have faced severe constraints. Since 2008 we have been stretched to maintain vigorous lobbying to help protect our members from additional cost burdens, as economic viability has been increasingly hard to achieve.
“My 25 years have been full of different challenges and I’ve had a great team,” added Ambrose. “I’m happy to be leaving the organization in the hands of someone who is very capable, someone of high caliber, to look after the members’ future interests.”
McNamara and Ambrose agree that challenges for the ERA have changed dramatically over time. While once the ERA’s efforts yielded far more immediate results, today the directorate must attend to far longer-term, more strategic concerns. “We spend a lot of time protecting [members’] interests on things that may come to affect them only on the next CEO’s watch,” said Ambrose. “So demonstrating added value is hard.”
Serving as Ambrose’s deputy for more than two years, McNamara recognizes the magnitude of the task at hand. “The challenge we face is to remain relevant to an important and fast-changing business,” said McNamara. “A lot of the role is about the strategic protection of our industry, so it has an infrastructure and environment in which it can thrive.”
Part of ensuring such a foundation exists will require working “incredibly closely” with the other airline associations, said McNamara, although he noted that interests do sometimes clash. “We do have different market segments, so we are not always in complete agreement,” he said.
Still, said Ambrose, different sectors of the airline business carry largely common interests. “We have to take those points and communicate them better to politicians,” he added.
He also noted that the average size of regional aircraft has grown steadily, to an average capacity of 72 seats. Meanwhile, the fleet as a whole has evolved from one dominated by turboprops 25 years ago to one served by just as many jets. Several communities in Europe might never need more than a double daily service with a small turboprop, said Ambrose, “yet those services remain critical to the regional communities, and we don’t want them disappearing.”
Examples include Sata of the Azores and Wideroe in Norway, said McNamara, seemingly heartened by the spirit of free enterprise still evident in the industry. “There still seems to be no shortage of innovators and entrepreneurs [in our sector],” he noted.
In an ironic twist, runaway costs and red tape more than ever limit the ability of such individuals to inject the vitality the industry needs, notwithstanding the good intentions of liberalization. Under the watch of McNamara and his staff, the ERA clearly intends to continue the good fight.