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Interview: Former TAP Air Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

And how she's leading the airline’s post-pandemic recovery amid a potential sale

by Enrique Perrella

February 20, 2023

CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener / Photo: Courtesy of TAP Air Portugal

UPDATE March 7, 2023: TAP Air Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener has been fired over what the Portuguese government has called an “illegal” severance payment to a government official. Read our latest coverage.

Men have historically led the commercial aviation industry, and today only eight percent of airline and airport leaders are women. One of them is Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of TAP Air Portugal, who rose from the trenches of maintenance hangars to the top office of a world-class carrier.

Born in the countryside city of Avignon, in Southern France, Ourmières-Widener studied to become an aeronautical engineer and a master of aeronautics. Her degrees enabled her to join the prestigious team at Air France who took care of Concorde, the world’s most iconic supersonic airliner.

From there, she held managerial positions within the group’s commercial and distribution departments. Then, in 2008, she became the first vice president/general manager of Air France-KLM USA, which led to her first C-suite position: chief executive officer of Irish regional carrier CityJet.

Ourmières-Widener has also been at the helm of Flybe, the U.K.’s largest regional carrier. In 2021, she was appointed as TAP Air Portugal’s CEO, brought in to restructure the airline and help it recover from its post-pandemic woes.

Her road to the top wasn’t easy. “It’s been a long journey,” she told Business Traveler during an exclusive interview in Miami. “You need to be patient and resilient. You need to take the opportunities that allow you to learn more.”

She is pleased to belong to the small group of female airline CEOs, which includes Anne Rigail at Air France and Marjan Rintel at KLM. “The aviation industry is very male-dominated,” she says, “but things are changing now.” According to TAP Air Portugal, 45 percent of its managers and 60 percent of its executive board members are female. “And we are very proud of that.” Asked about Portugal’s reaction to her appointment as CEO of the country’s flag carrier, she says that people have been welcoming. “I meet people daily who show me their support, including in the destinations we fly to.”

But Ourmières-Widener came to lead TAP Air Portugal during a challenging time. As the airline faces potential privatization talks between the government and investors, she and her team also dealt with high fuel prices, intense staff shortages and geopolitical difficulties—all while making the airline attractive enough for a sale.

TAP Air Portugal Airbus A320 / Photo: UWE Deffner/Alamy Stock Photo

“It was very difficult,” she admits. “When I joined the airline, we faced a huge collective dismissal. The company’s future was uncertain as we expected the European Commission to approve state aid and a restructuring plan.”

Six months after Ourmières-Widener took office, the restructuring plan was approved. “It was tough, not only for our employees but also for our customers,” she says. “None of them had assurance of what would happen next. Now, the plan is working.”

TAP Air Portugal closed its best-ever third quarter with $118 million in profits in 2022, with load factors increasing by 20 points to a healthy 87 percent, operating above 90 percent capacity. However, she remains pragmatic about these positive results. “It is only a quarter,” she says, recognizing that the airline is still far from reaching its final goal—which in her view is to “become a top sustainably profitable airline.”

Asked about projections, Ourmières-Widener remains bullish. “We live in a world that could rapidly change,” she says. “We are happy with the results, but we’re also cautious and already preparing for next summer, when we want to move from 90 percent of our capacity to 100 percent.”

For this reason, TAP Air Portugal won’t be adding any new destinations until stability returns. According to her, the airline needs to consolidate its current network, continue to work on the same strategy and strengthen its growth in its current top markets. “We’re always looking at new destinations, but we have limited available aircraft to continue growing.”

Ourmières-Widener and her team also have a significant task ahead of them apart from adding destinations and healing the airline’s balance sheets. After purchasing a substantial stake in the airline in 2020, the Portuguese government now wants to sell it back to the private sector. The Lufthansa Group and Air France-KLM are two frontrunners.

“This is good news for our employees and customers,” she says, “knowing there’s recognition of what we can bring to any airline group.” In the meantime, TAP Air Portugal continues its path of recovery while regaining lost ground. Ourmières-Widener’s accomplishments as the first woman CEO of the Portuguese flag carrier won’t go unnoticed if she manages to bring the airline’s financial results back into the black and secure an acquisition deal with one of Europe’s largest airline groups.