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Leading Through a Crisis

Former CEO at Spirit Airlines

IP Interview
Published on May 23, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • The importance of communication internally and externally through a crisis
Executive Bio

Ben Baldanza

Former CEO at Spirit Airlines

Ben has over 35 years of experience in the airline industry. From 2005 - 16 he was CEO of Spirit Airlines and is known for defining the ultra low cost carrier model after transforming the business to become the 7th largest airline in the US. Ben was previously SVP at both American Airlines and Continental Airlines and also led the restructuring of Avianca Holdings. He now consults with the largest US airlines and is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

Interview Transcript

How would you be looking at managing this crisis today, as an airline CEO? What would you really be focusing on?

If you fly planes – and I have a pilot’s license, even though I don’t fly anymore – when you learn to fly, one of the things you learn early on is that when you’re in trouble, such as weather or navigation or something like that, the first order of business is, fly the airplane. Make sure you know where you are. Make sure you know which heading you are going on. Make sure your wings are straight and level. Make sure you have enough fuel. Make sure you are communicating with the right people. Once that’s the case, then you can address the situation at hand and get my plane where it’s supposed to be, instead of where it is. Get myself out of this bad weather. That’s where airline CEOs are, right now.

They know their stock price is pummeled. They know that people aren’t flying. They know that they’ve got lots of employees who want to work, but they can’t afford to pay or they’re paying them through some government help. But what they’re doing is, they’re managing their liquidity, so that they can emerge as strong as possible, even though they’ll be weaker. It’s the old joke. The two guys are in the forest and they see a bear coming towards them and one starts tying his shoes. He says, why are you tying your shoes? He replies, I don’t have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you. It’s that idea that they have to think about, how do I emerge stronger. That’s all they’re thinking about. They know that, eventually, when their business returns, their stock price will return. Right now, they’ve got to fly the airplane, they’ve got to stay focused on what they can control. What they can control is their own liquidity and the proactive things they can do, to get their customers comfortable flying them again.

They should be talking to their best customers. They should be talking to all their customers. They should be exploring ways that they can bring them back, in a way that’s comfortable to them and they should take a proactive stance in bringing demand back to the industry. Not wait until a vaccine happens or until some governor or President says it’s okay to fly again. They should own their customer base and work at that. If you can stay liquid and you can get the customers engaged with you again, then you have a longstanding business.

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