“Aviation. We are the good guys of globalisation.”
This was the seemingly offhand remark made by Carsten Spohr, Chairman and CEO of the Lufthansa Group, near the end of a 45-minute press conference while he sat on the dais to the right of James Hogan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Etihad Aviation, in a window-less room at Emirates Palace on February 1.
A mere five days after Donald Trump, the US President, issued his executive order restricting immigrants of seven Muslim nations from entering America, and 12 days after Mr Trump was sworn in as the US’s 45th commander-in-chief, Germany’s largest airline and the national carrier of the UAE signed an agreement to strengthen their relationship.
It wasn’t so long ago that the word globalisation was never spoken in a social setting for fear it could unleash the fiercest of diatribes and the harshest of rebuttals from even the greatest of friends.
How times have changed.
In a room about double the size of the combined first- and business-class of an Etihad Airbus A380, Mr Spohr hit upon the key issue: globalisation might no longer be the enemy many feared.
By their nature, airlines bring people together. But air travel is also the preferred mode of transportation for those passengers from the seven affected Muslim nations (Iraq, Iran Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) barred from entering the United States for at least 120 days.
The optics with Etihad and Lufthansa signing a deal in Abu Dhabi could not be more opposite from the message Mr Trump is sending from Washington.
Business deals are signed when schedules allow for the respective CEOs to come together, and only after all negotiations have been concluded. To suggest the timing of this deal was anything other than a coincidence (coming just days following Mr Trump’s executive order) is a mistake.
But history has shown us that hindsight is often our most powerful magnifying glass to examine carefully the repercussions of a business deal or a presidential executive order. History is wonderful at tying together seemingly unrelated threads that hang from a weekly unravelling calendar of events. So when Muslim immigrants fly into American airports and are refused entry, and when a Middle East airline and a European airline sign a deal five days later, there is a natural inclination to look at both through the same lens.
There are few instances in life when first-hand witnesses see the possibilities of an event as it unfolds. Mr Spohr’s comment is a perfect example of how times can begin to change in a moment, how perceptions can shift and how optics can focus anew.
Globalisation – at least the traditional definition espoused by the toughest WTO critics – is portrayed as the less fortunate being taken advantage of. The big and powerful rips what it wants from the unprotected. But Mr Spohr’s remark helped change the optics of what globalisation can mean in an age when a six-time-bankrupt businessman digs in his heels and fights to uphold campaign promises.
Globalisation may now be the best way to counterbalance narrow-minded ideals and open them to a world of possibilities. Globalisation may now mean something different than what it did just a few weeks ago. Globalisation might not be such a dirty word. Perhaps it is the best way for businesses to demonstrate that societies can move forward when people and companies move in step.
What Mr Spohr said about the aviation industry and globalisation means that the people who we thought were the bad guys might just turn out to be the good guys.
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