It takes a brave man to buy the troubled Portuguese airline, TAP. The government’s sale of 61% of the airline only attracted two viable bidders and a consortium led by the Brazilian-American, David Neeleman, won.
Mr Neeleman is an optimist, as he clearly needs to be in view of the challenges faced by TAP. The airline has all the problems of a traditional, small scheduled airline combined with the specific problems of Portugal, notably a bad economy and a truculent workforce. However, the airline is not without its selling-points. They have a unique network from Lisbon to almost every major city in Brazil. For many Brazilians, it is easier to fly to Europe with TAP and change in Lisbon than it is to risk the excitement of changing in Sao Paulo. As the owner and founder of Brazil’s Azul Airlines, he clearly hopes to build on this and link the two airlines to make TAP the dominant force between Brazil and Europe.
Passengers might currently choose to fly with TAP because it is more convenient or because it is cheaper but they will rarely choose to fly with them because they are nicer. TAP customer-facing staff tend to combine the traditional surliness of Southern Europeans working for a state institution with the reserved (or, some would say, rather miserable) nature of the Portuguese. Making money as a full-service carrier does not just depends on routes and prices. To get over that waver-thin dividing line between profit and loss, an airline has to ensure that enough people fly with them out of choice – simply because they are a good airline to fly with.
This is where Mr Neeleman comes in. He made his name as the original boss of jetBlue in the US. That airline became hugely popular with passengers because it brought high standards together with friendly customer service. Group hugs with the flight crew and cabin staff before flights were encouraged and staff were told to “have fun” flying. The happy working atmosphere rubbed off on passengers and jetBlue succeeded when most had expected it to fail.
Converting the sullen staff of TAP to this “have a nice day” culture will be difficult but we must hope it works. Europe needs its strong airlines to withstand the overseas competition. At least now they have a small chance.