Stephen Kavanagh: Aer Lingus’s nuts and bolts man

Kavanagh knows enough about the airline’s workings to steer it forward

Stephen Kavanagh, Aer Lingus’s new chief executive officer. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography/PA Wire

Stephen Kavanagh, Aer Lingus’s new chief executive officer. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography/PA Wire

 

Stephen Kavanagh will be the first Aer Lingus insider to take the helm at the former flag carrier since it appointed Willie Walsh, who now heads International Consolidated Airlines’ Group (IAG), as its chief executive in 2001.

Kavanagh’s immediate predecessor, outgoing chief executive Christoph Mueller, joined Aer Lingus in 2009 from TUI Travel. Sligoman Dermot Mannion, who held the top position for four years from 2005, previously worked in a number of senior roles with Dubai-based Emirates.

However, Kavanagh does have something in common with both men – his age, 47. Presumably by sheer coincidence, Mueller and Mannion were also 47 when they took on the role of Aer Lingus chief executive.

Like them, he is arriving at a critical point in the airline’s history. Mannion prepared it for flotation while Mueller had to steer it through the recession. Kavanagh could be the chief executive who merges it into IAG or charts a new course for it as a small independent player in an industry where many argue that consolidation is the way forward.

Charm offensive

Oireachtas

While the timing caught some unawares, the appointment itself did not. Industry insiders tipped Kavanagh as the front-runner in the race to succeed Mueller on the day last July when the current chief executive announced his plan to leave next May.

That date has been brought forward to February 28th. The man who will take the controls at Aer Lingus on March 1st is from Drimnagh in Dublin and joined the airline straight from college in 1988, when he began working in ground operations.

He moved up through the organisation, spending the Walsh era in commercial planning before joining the executive ranks in 2006, ahead of the airline’s transformation from State-owned enterprise to public listed company.

Kavanagh served as chief commercial officer from 2009 and is now chief strategy and planning officer. He is very much a “nuts and bolts” manager who is very familiar with the airline’s internal workings.

“He knows Aer Lingus inside out, the design of the routes, the nitty gritty of manpower and resources, everything that comes and goes,” says one observer, who adds that, as a result, Kavanagh understands which long- and short-haul services are likely to work, and where craft can best be allocated.

Kavanagh played a key role in redeveloping its transatlantic operations which have tapped into a new transfer market from Britain and other parts of Europe. Its initial success in opening up Dublin as a transatlantic hub is one of the reasons IAG now wants to buy the Irish airline.

He was also pivotal to deals such as the Aer Lingus Regional arrangement with Stobart Air, and with the carrier’s experiments in leasing some of its craft and crew to other airlines. This has yielded more mixed results. In 2012, it agreed a tie-in with Virgin’s Little Red domestic service in the UK, whereby it would provide the planes and fly the routes.

Branson’s airline has since decided to axe Little Red as it failed to attract the numbers. However, that is no reflection on Aer Lingus, and Mueller recently noted that other carriers have asked if it is interested in similar arrangements.

Institutional shareholders

Kavanagh worked well with Mueller, who didn’t necessarily get on with the senior managers who were in place when he arrived, and has now held key roles under two different chief executives.

If the IAG deal goes ahead, it is thought his feel for the logistics of running an airline should ensure he works well with Walsh.