One month after she was ousted, TAP Air Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener is still at the helm of the state-owned airline and challenging both her dramatic dismissal on live television and the lack of guidance she has received to run the company in the meantime.
Ourmières-Widener was fired alongside airline chairman Manuel Beja by Portugal’s Finance Minister Fernando Medina in a March 6 press conference broadcast on national television. Ourmières-Widener and Manuel Beja were implicated in a scandal involving an illegal severance payment of €500,000 ($547,000) to departing executive board member Alexandra Reis.
The allegation was that the airline, which had received a taxpayer-funded bailout to weather the pandemic, had used part of it to richly compensate Reis, who left her position at TAP when the government appointed her to chair the country’s air traffic regulator.
An investigation by the finance ministry found that, under rules for public officials, Reis had no right to compensation, which has been characterized as a “golden handshake.” She has been ordered to repay the money.
The resulting scandal led to the resignation of several government officials and the very public shakeup of TAP’s top ranks.
“This episode has shaken the confidence of the Portuguese in TAP, and it is essential, above all, to recover the bond of trust between the country and the company,” Medina said at the time of Ourmières-Widener’s firing.
At the time of the firing, it was announced that Luis Rodrigues, the chief executive of the Azores regional airline SATA, would become both CEO and chairman of TAP Air Portugal.
However, Ourmières-Widener told a parliamentary hearing this week that since her dramatic dismissal, no action has been taken to install a replacement to run the national flag carrier.
“After one month, I’m still in functions without any guidelines in a period for the company that is critical,” she told Portuguese lawmakers. “It’s not easy to navigate with all the noise around the company.”
When asked by a legislator when she expected to depart the airline, she said she didn’t know.
Ourmières-Widener also maintains that her public firing was illegal and disrespectful. She says government ministers authorized the controversial severance payment to Reis. She specifically cited a February 2 message from Secretary of State for Infrastructures Hugo Mendes “informing me that Pedro Nuno Santos [former Minister for Housing, Transport, and Infrastructures] had authorized” the severance payment to Alexandra Reis. Ourmières-Widener was simply asked to “sign off on the agreement,” she says.
Ourmières-Widener also said that she should have been dismissed by TAP’s General Assembly rather than by the finance minister. She has hired Lisbon law firm Vasconcelos Arruda & Associados to contest her termination.
“This process that was started on TV is illegal and was really not appropriate and lacking all respect for a senior executive,” she said.
Ourmières-Widener, formerly the head of British domestic carrier Flybe, was appointed chief executive of TAP in June 2021 and oversaw the airline’s restructuring following the €2 billion pandemic bailout. She led the airline to a surprising recovery, including a record operating profit of €65.6 ($70) million in 2022, despite the tripling of fuel costs to €1 ($1.08) billion.
However, by the end of 2022, her brief tenure had been clouded by the scandal involving Reis’s severance package. Ourmières-Widener remains as the acting CEO, as noted by the airline’s corporate governance website.
The Portuguese government remains the majority owner of TAP and will decide when Ourmières-Widener departs and who is installed as her replacement.
Meanwhile, the government is in the process of privatizing TAP, with interest from Lufthansa and the Air France- KLM group. On March 22, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the privatization process would open “very soon” but didn’t provide an exact date.