Brace Brace Yet Another New Pilot at Air Berlin

Air Berlin said a former Lufthansa manager, Stefan Pichler, will take the helm of Germany's second-biggest airline, which has struggled for several years.
Can Stefan Pichler get Air Berlin through its turbulence?

Wolfgang Prock-Schauer’s leadership at Air Berlin was not as dynamic as it should have been.

Mr. Prock-Schauer announced a few weeks ago that he would cut 200 of the about 8,500 positions at the troubled airline. In addition, Air Berlin would concentrate its air traffic at fewer locations. A new business model? No chance. Separate out the three divisions of tourism, long-haul flights and European connections? Not with him.

The acute difficulties of Lufthansa’s main German competitor appeared to worry everyone except the CEO himself. The fact that the publicly traded airline was profitable only once in recent years, and that it burned through almost €100 million ($125 million) in the last quarter and would have been grossly in debt long ago without the infusion of cash from major shareholder Etihad, has hardly bothered the 58-year-old. He recently said phlegmatically in Berlin: “We will be in the black again in 2016.”

But the airline finally lost patience on Monday, when Air Berlin announced that as of February 1, 2015, aviation expert Stefan Pichler would become the successor to the Austrian executive. Mr. Prock-Schauer will remain on the management board, but as “chief strategy and planning officer” — a function that until now has been occupied by Etihad.

Handelsblatt has learned that the change was orchestrated on the front line by Joachim Körber, the chairman of the supervisory board, in close cooperation with the major shareholder from the Persian Gulf. In a statement Monday, Mr. Körber, the former head of retailer Metro, said: “We are pleased to get a strong leader for our senior executive team with the appointment of Stefan Pichler.”

Mr. Körber’s comments can be taken literally. The airline already had unsuccessfully approached Mr. Pichler before the appointment of Mr. Prock-Schauer two years ago. A breakthrough only came during discussions in recent weeks.

Air Berlin WTB

 

Mr. Pichler is considered to be the airline’s first choice. He is certainly ambitious. He once told Handelsblatt that he saw a parallel between sport and business. “Both are more fun if you are playing in the top league,” he said.

At Lufthansa, Mr. Pichler, who is now 57, was the marketing and sales director in the 1990s, and was long been considered the crown prince for the top post there. Jürgen Weber has been his mentor behind the scenes.

Mr. Pichler revamped Jazeera Airways, an ailing airline from Kuwait. It could provide the blueprint for the restructuring of Air Berlin.

But the rise to the top did not happen quickly enough for Mr. Pichler: in 2000 he moved to the top post of what was then a Lufthansa subsidiary C&N (Condor & Neckermann), which later became Thomas Cook. Under pressure from the Karstadt, at that time a co-partner, which was pushing for higher dividends, he had to leave the tourism company in 2004.

Since then, the lawyer and business graduate has been solidifying his position as turnaround specialist. Between 2009 and September 2013, for example, he revamped Jazeera Airways, an ailing airline from Kuwait. It could provide the blueprint for the restructuring of Air Berlin.

Air Berlin apparently does not want to drop the unlucky Mr. Prock-Schauer entirely. Company sources say he has always been a manager who preferred to work behind the scenes instead of seeking publicity. That is one of the reasons he had the suppport of Air Berlin's main shareholder Etihad.

“They wanted someone who would go along with the wishes from Abu Dhabi and would not try to force their own way,” said an insider.

But that alone was not enough. Now Stefan Pichler has to knuckle  down at Air Berlin. He is certainly determined.

As a young man Mr. Pichler was a long-distance runner, 25 kilometers and marathon distances, and he was a member of Germany’s track and field national team. His best time running 25 kilometers was just seconds above the world record.

“Diligence, endurance, ambition and an unshakable belief in oneself,” is how Mr. Pichler once described the characteristics of a marathon runner, which are also beneficial for a professional career.

One anecdote that demonstrates his ambition is when, as a Lufthansa manager, his team once played a soccer game against colleagues from partner airline United. He took the game so seriously that during the warm-up session he fell on his shoulder and broke his collarbone. After that he couldn’t shake hands with business partners for months without grimacing from the pain.

 

Jens Koenen covers the aviation industry and Christoph Schlautmann covers the retail sector for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]