Monday interview: Flybe CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

Since taking the chief executive seat at Flybe in mid-January, Christine Ourmières-Widener says it has been a 'very interesting' journey so far at the regional airline.

Flybe's new chief outlined her plans for growth during a visit to Edinburgh Airport. Picture: Jon Savage
Flybe's new chief outlined her plans for growth during a visit to Edinburgh Airport. Picture: Jon Savage

Speaking during a visit to Edinburgh Airport, the French-born executive’s role comes during an admittedly bumpy environment for the aviation industry.

The airline in fact said in January as it reported its third-quarter figures that it had experienced a sluggish start to 2017 due to “uncertain customer confidence and poor weather”, with year-on-year drops in both revenue per seat and yield. However, passenger revenue was up by 13.5 per cent, ahead of the 5.7 per cent growth seen in the first half.

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But for the airline industry veteran, who started her career in Air France’s maintenance operations, some turbulence in the sector is certainly nothing new.

Ourmières-Widener said in the earnings report that while she had just started in the role, “everything I have seen so far confirms my excitement at the opportunity we have to become the best regional airline in Europe. There is much to be done, but we have the firm foundations needed”.

Hoping to drive such acceleration is its imminent debut of routes from Edinburgh and Aberdeen to London Heathrow, with the slots becoming available due to European Commission commitments after the acquisition of BMI by International Consolidated Airlines Group. Furthermore, the slots would not be bought by Flybe and consequently would not be brought onto the balance sheet, the airline said at the time.

The new services mean that as of 26 March, Flybe will offer up to 18 flights a day between London and Edinburgh, and ten between the UK capital and Aberdeen.

It came after Virgin Atlantic in 2015 pulled the plug on its Little Red flights on the same routes, saying they had “not been able to make a positive contribution” to its network.

Ourmières-Widener notes that the success of the UK and Scottish economies are intertwined with the airline industry, and the new routes will allow for connectivity with Flybe’s codeshare partners, which include Virgin Atlantic, Etihad and Singapore Airlines, and interline connections with carriers such as United Airlines, Qantas, and Cathay Pacific.

When her chief executive role was announced in December, she said she was looking forward to bringing her “industry experience and passion” to the firm. After completing a masters in aeronautics from France’s École Nationale Supérieure de Mécanique et d’Aérotechnique, and later undertaking an MBA from ESSEC Business School, she found herself in a hangar surrounded by engineers and a real-life aircraft.

That required some adjustment from theory to practice, but she says she quickly learnt on the ground what her aims and duties were, and such technical knowledge provided a solid backing for her career since.

She worked her way up at Air France to become its UK and Ireland general manager and later vice-president in New York, and was chief executive of regional airline CityJet between 2010 and 2015, but says its business model and financial situation were very different to those of her current employer.

Leaving CityJet to become chief global sales officer for American Express Global Business Travel, this showed her the travel agent side of the industry, but the opportunity to return to her passion of aviation came up with the Flybe role. She now describes the airline as “quite a significant operation”, with about 85 aircraft.

Noting that its new financial year starts on 1 April, “for me, it was good timing to be involved in the preparation of the budget for next year”.

The airline said in January that according to the 2016 OAG Punctuality League it was rated the best UK airline and sixth-best worldwide for being on time, and Ourmières-Widener sees reliability as a key factor from a revenue and passenger perspective. Her new role has involved her relocating to Devon, splitting her time between there and London. She stresses that her visit to Scotland, which also took in a stop-off in Glasgow, comes as she seeks feedback from staff, customers and shareholders as she is still gaining altitude in the first few months of her job. “It is very important to understand how they see the company,” she said.


Born: 1964, Avignon

Education: MA in engineering, MBA

First job: Airline maintenance engineer

Ambition while at school: Lawyer

What car do you drive? Audi

Favourite mode of transport: Flybe

Music: Diverse – from pop, rock and rap to classical

Kindle or book? Book

Reading material: Neapolitan novels (Elena Ferrante)

Can’t live without: My family – and my Louboutins!

What makes you angry? Selfish thinking hampering sustainable business

What inspires you? Results through teamwork

Favourite place: Venice - where my husband proposed

Best thing about your job? You never get bored

Best business advice: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life” – Steve Jobs