For close to two decades, Chris Zweigenthal has been at the helm of one of Africa’s leading aviation industry organizations, the Association of Southern African Airlines (AASA) based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is leaving in August to be with family in the USA. In this Q & A with Nomad Africa, he takes us through his accomplishments and more.
Nomad Africa: What were the milestones of your tenure and why?
Chris Zweigenthal: The milestones for me were characterized by industry changes and personal events. I joined AASA in February 2002 as Deputy Chief Executive some 5 months after the tragic events of 9/11.
At that time the focus and priority of the industry was on upgrading safety and security throughout the value chain in airports, on board aircraft, and the passenger experience, an issue that remains a priority to this day.
The post 9/11 recovery also challenged the airlines financially. The global economic slow-down of 2008/09 also impacted airlines significantly and the COVID-19 pandemic declared in March 2020 was the most devastating crisis ever to impact the aviation industry.
A personal milestone was my appointment as Chief Executive of AASA in March 2009.
Whilst AASA deals with many issues across the entire aviation industry, these milestones forced one to focus on and resolve critical issues that impacted the sustainability and future of the airline industry and our individual members.
Nomad Africa: Given that there are still many challenges for aviation in Southern Africa, what were your experiences like as the head of AASA?
Chris Zweigenthal: There are certainly many challenges facing aviation in Southern Africa, the most pressing currently being the recovery of the industry, to achieve a positive cash position and return to profitability as soon as is possible.
Through all the difficult economic milestones mentioned above and the many projects and initiatives we have worked on, it has been a privilege to get to know and work with a very diverse group of top officials in Government across all departments, the Chief Executives, Executives, management and teams within companies and agencies in aviation, travel, tourism, and associated sectors.
We have developed excellent constructive business relationships enabling us to promote our members’ interests and achieving our mandate.
Nomad Africa: Can you take us through the state of the organisation at the time you joined and now?
Chris Zweigenthal: When I joined AASA in 2002, John Morrison was CEO of AASA and I became the fifth member of staff. He was well respected, and AASA was regarded as a leader in aviation in the Southern African region.
AASA’s mandate was growing significantly at this time, and what for me started initially as a part-time assignment soon developed into a full-time job. John and I worked very closely together and I learned an enormous amount from him.
When John retired and I was appointed CEO, it was a smooth transition into my new position. AASA continued to grow its business agenda throughout my tenure and I believe continues to be regarded as a leader of the industry in the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us all a huge curved ball and whilst AASA itself remains in a reasonable financial position, our main challenge remains finding the solution to ensure the recovery and ultimate sustainability of the industry.
Nomad Africa: How many members did AASA have at the time of your appointment and how many are there now?
Chris Zweigenthal: When I joined, there were 15 Airline members from South Africa and the region. There are now 20 airline members.
When I joined, there were 16 Associate members. There are now 37 Associate members. (Associate members include aircraft and engine manufacturers, airports, air navigation services, weather service, financial and leasing institutions, suppliers, service providers, ground handlers, and tourism marketing organizations).
Nomad Africa: Can you tell us what were the major tasks for your tenure and if you managed to achieve them?
Chris Zweigenthal: During my tenure, I was involved in most major business projects or initiatives that AASA undertook on behalf of its members.
We also worked with IATA to promote their global agenda as it applied to the Southern African region and with the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa, as well as other industry organizations such as the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa in areas where there was an overlap of interests.
The major work included looking after the airline industry interests on infrastructure service provider business projects and operations, policy, legislative and regulatory issues impacting the airline industry, climate change initiatives, transformation of the industry, skills development and retention of skills, and projects which promote aspirations of new aviators.
Nomad Africa: How do you see the future of AASA?
Chris Zweigenthal: AASA exists for its members and has a duty to ensure that it fulfills its mandate and adds value to its members.
We believe that its growth over the years both in numbers and in the business agenda is testament to its success over the past years. Since March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has gone through extremely challenging times.
Some of the projects have been delayed due to the focus of all public and private stakeholders, on dealing with the pandemic. Emerging from the pandemic, the industry will probably look and operate differently to the pre-COVID environment.
Post-COVID, relationships between all stakeholders will need to be re-calibrated and become more engaging.
AASA has a major role to play in the aviation industry in our region and is the organization that is able to represent the whole industry on all issues of mutual interest with public and private stakeholders. Hence, AASA must have a great future.
Nomad Africa: As an experienced aviator, would you still be available to lend any expertise to AASA or the broader African aviation industry?
Chris Zweigenthal: I left AASA for personal reasons; to spend more time with family.
However, I have a passion for the airline industry in Africa, that I have been privileged to serve for more than 32 years, 13 years with SAA, and just over 19 years with AASA.
There is so much more work left to do and I would be available to make a contribution where I could add value.
Nomad Africa: What kind of advice would you give to the person taking over at AASA?
Chris Zweigenthal: Wrenelle Stander takes over from me as AASA CEO. I have known Wrenelle for many years and have had the opportunity of previously working with her.
She knows the industry and environment that she is returning to. I would therefore say to her that in this industry anything can happen, be prepared for any curve balls, have a good sense of humour, and enjoy the experience!