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Interview: I chat with TAP Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

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Last week, I headed down to Lisbon for a behind-the-scenes tour of the TAP Portugal aircraft hangars and maintenance facilities. I will cover this in a separate article, but today I want to focus on the group interview we had with TAP’s CEO, Christine Ourmières-Widener.

(If the name rings a bell, Christine was CEO of Flybe when it was a quoted company. She left when it was acquired by the Virgin Atlantic-led consortium, before it went into administration.)

The Portuguese flag carrier has managed to weather the pandemic, albeit not necessarily in flying colours. Like many other airlines, it didn’t exactly cover itself in glory when it came to issuing refunds during covid.

Interview: I chat with TAP Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

Things are now looking up. Christine said that the airline is now growing again. It posted its highest-ever third quarter revenues with a profit of €111 million between July and September.

By the sounds of it, TAP is performing better than forecast earlier this year. Securing regular, long term profits will be key to the airline’s survival, as it is currently heavily indebted.

The good news is that the outlook is strong, despite inflationary and cost-of-living headwinds. Like other airlines, Christine says demand is still high for the remainder of 2022, a trend that appears to be continuing into next year. “So far, the forward bookings have been very strong.”

To make the most of it, TAP will “move to 100% capacity compared to pre-pandemic next year.”. Whilst the Winter Season is always quieter, “in particular the summer of 2023 will be identical to the summer 2019.” This puts it ahead of the larger European airlines including British Airways, Lufthansa, Iberia and KLM who are unlikely to return to 100% of 2019 capacity for another few years yet.

TAP will do so with a smaller fleet, which has been capped at 99 aircraft until the airline reaches the end of its European Commission-approved restructuring plan. “We have six aircraft left less than in 2019 …. but we will fly the same capacity,” she says.

The secret has been to increase the size of the aircraft it has left by replacing smaller ATR aircraft with larger Embraer Jets, increasing the cabin size by approximately 30 seats.

These aircraft allow TAP to feed its long haul network, which Christine calls “the engine of profitability”. Portugal is a tiny country with a population the size of London, so it is much more reliant on its convenient geographic placement as a European gateway to South America and West Africa.

TAP Portugal flight route map
TAP’s route network is in green. Other colours denote partners.

Fewer than 30% of passengers on TAP originate in Lisbon or Portugal. The vast majority are connecting onwards, often either to or from the Americas which form the backbone for TAP’s route network.

That also means it is particularly dependent on external economies such as the United States and Brazil. Fortunately, things are looking stable. American visitors continue to flood into Europe thanks to a favourable exchange rate and massive pent up demand. “It still seems that US citizens are really dying to go to Europe.”

Brazil is similar. As TAP’s most significant market outside of Portugal, Christine sees the recent election results in a positive light for TAP: “Economists are saying that the election is good thing for Brazil’s economy.” Assuming they are correct, TAP will continue to ferry affluent Brazilians to and from Europe and make a profit on it.

As to whether TAP would consider launching more flights from Porto?

“It’s difficult to have two hubs because even bigger countries than Portugal have tried try it and never succeeded. Our priority is to make this hub work. If it’s working and we need to grow we will see, but for the time being we have to focus on what our core business is before thinking about anything else.”

Plans have also been on the table to create a newer, better Lisbon Airport. The city has grown around the airport, which is now surrounded by residential neighbourhoods on all sides. Plans for a new Lisbon Airport have been fielded many times. For now, however, “we don’t know when and where the next airport will be.”

Interview: I chat with TAP Portugal CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener

For now, however, Christine is focussed on turning TAP around and getting it through a difficult period of restructuring, one of the conditions imposed by the European Commission as part of the Portuguese Government’s pandemic bailout.

Whilst that continues, the Portuguese Government has once again signalled its intent to sell its stake in TAP.

There are rumours of further consolidation in the European market. A decade ago, a flurry of activity created three major airline groups: IAG (British Airways and Iberia), Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, SWISS, Austrian etc) and Air France-KLM. Little has changed since then.

To compete on a global scale, the remaining European legacy airlines are likely to continue to merge into one of these three groupings as long as the domestic political will is there. As a current Star Alliance member Lufthansa looks the most obvious route for TAP but obviously IAG (owner of Iberia as well as British Airways) and Air France-KLM would take an interest. EU rules ban any company from outside the block from holding a stake above 49.9%.

Christine isn’t getting distracted, though:

“Whatever is happening, I have to deliver my restructuring plan. And the reason [why is that] whoever could be interested in buying TAP would be even more interested in a company that is better organised and showing positive results. So the plan until 2025 is to show progressively sustainable profits….So there is no change really.”

Later in the week I will show you what goes on at TAP’s maintenance base in Lisbon.

Comments (138)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Mayfair Mike says:

    Just remembered actually a great story with these guys…
    A few years ago a group of us were flying out to Portugal for a champions league match. 1 of the lads ended up being over there for work the day before so didnt need his outbound flight anymore.
    As I’d booked the group, I called TAP customer services to let them know this as a courtesy.
    They said we would have to pay £250 for this “amendment”!
    Utterly bizarre and greedy as they could have sold this flight out easily given the demand for flights from fans.
    Clearly we didn’t pay this and didn’t proceed with any amendment.
    At gatwick we checked him in online and let him be a no show at the gate, we were hoping we would hear those announcements chasing him up but they didn’t even bother to do that.
    Was no issue when he caught the flight back with us 2 days later, I thought there might have been but no.

  • Londonsteve says:

    This is a case study in how PR isn’t supposed to work. Get a respected portal to publish a PR piece to improve the company’s image. Comments to the article reveal the truth about the company that I’d never otherwise have read. Now that I know what a shower they are, I’ll ensure I’ll never ever fly with them. Good timing as I was considering a trip to Brazil in 2023. Why are they so incredibly tight when it comes to paying compensation and expenses legally due? Chronic cashflow problems? Does retaining this money actually improve the company’s annual accounts considering it doesn’t actually belong to them?

    • Max says:

      A lot of customers give up their EU261/04 compensation or accept vouchers instead of cash refunds if the airlines are playing hard to get.

    • Nihal says:

      The answers to your 2 questions are clear enough, so don’t need answering.

      More relevantly: it shows why BA are so blimming difficult (often/ sometimes) over EU261 and duty of care. It’s a deliberate policy to make it difficult to get compo for situations where they are legally entitled to get a bank credit in their favour.

      I’d like to know how many people just give up at the first, second, third or whatever attempt to get their compo. don’t forget: these people (ie people delayed or cancelled) are not trying it on – they suffered unreasonable delays/ cancellations because the airline didn’t operate efficiently & according to the law, which does actually give the airlines quite a lot of leeway for some amount of delay.

      I bet 85-90&% of people just take it like a stooge.

      • Londonsteve says:

        The answers to my 2 questions (I counted 3) might be clear enough to you, but aren’t to me, that’s why I posed them in the first place, hoping to get an layman’s explanation from an industry expert. We don’t all work in the aviation industry or in the finance department of a multinational. I think I now understand that it’s a deliberate ploy to throw you off the scent and after a period of time the company can convert this cash from being represented in their accounts as owed to creditors (i.e. their own passengers) to their own cash, for example, if you accept a voucher for future travel. As an aside, it does make booking with Avios all the more tempting considering we can cancel at short notice for a mere £35 penalty if they cancel flights and the alternatives offered (or not offered) are unacceptable. They’ve got one over a barrel in the case of 90% of revenue fares. It makes it all the more surprising to me that so many people are at the moment willing to pay multiple thousands in cash far in advance to organisations that have proven they’re not minded to engage in fair play. Personally, I’d rather hedge myself against their raptor behaviour and pay the minimum cash necessary to fly in Economy as the potential losses are then limited. I just couldn’t bring myself to hand over £5k to an airline right now and pray the flight takes off as planned, is correctly staffed and catered on the day, isn’t subject to an aircraft switch, thus downgrading you from Club Suite to Club World, or from Q Suite to some rubbish alternative. Would much rather pay Avios and pull out if I don’t like the terms anything up to the day before departure.

  • Dissatisfied Customer says:

    I’ve been trying to get a refund for a seat I paid for which wasn’t honored. It has been going on for months.

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