Indian airlines cannot seem to get enough expat CEOs, and they are adding a few more names to the list in the coming days. We recently reported about Air India appointing New Zealand-born Campbell Wilson as its CEO, the first after the privatization. Now, IndiGo has appointed Dutch-national Pieter Elbers, who is currently at KLM, as its next CEO. Elbers to give IndiGo fresh blood for next growth phase.

The arival of Elbers marks the end of an era for IndiGo. Its current CEO, Ronojoy Dutta (71), who worked extensively at United, before heading Air Sahara in India, and later IndiGo for the past four years, is going to retire and leave the company by September 30.

Announcing his retirement, Ronojoy Dutta said: “I leave knowing that IndiGo is in the good custody of Mr. Elbers and that the future for IndiGo employees is secure and bright. I would like to thank all the employees at IndiGo for the kindness and affection they have shown me over the past four years. As I move forward to the next chapter of my life, I will look back with nostalgia, fondness, and a tinge of separation regret.”

Commending his service, Rahul Bhatia, Managing Director of IndiGo said: “The Board of Directors and I would like to thank Rono for effectively leading our business for almost four years with a steady hand through what has been the most turbulent period in the airline’s history and aviation globally.”

The departure of Dutta is one of the many changes in the management of IndiGo as the airline exits the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently, Rahul Bhatia , who is one of the promoters of the airline, took on the role of Managing Director. Rakesh Gangwal, the other promoter of IndiGo, has recently exited the Board of Directors and intends to exit his shareholding of the airline through a secondary sale of shares over time. Together with their related entities and individuals, Gangwal and Bhatia control a 77.4 percent stake in InterGlobe Aviation, the company which owns and operates IndiGo airlines, in an almost equal split. 

Many top leaders of IndiGo have been poached by startup airline Akasa Air over the past months, IndiGo’s Chief Commercial Officer William Boulter will also be leaving the airline in the coming months, although an official announcement to this effect has not been made yet.

Elbers brings huge experience to IndiGo

Pieter Elbers will start as CEO on October 1. With the arrival of Elbers, IndiGo brings new blood, fresh views, and huge experience into the airline. The Dutchman (52) has served as the President & Chief Executive Officer of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines since 2014. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of Air France-KLM. Elbers has always worked at KLM, having started his career in 1992 at their Schiphol hub and over time, held several managerial positions in both The Netherlands and overseas in Japan, Greece, and Italy.

Elbers was generally well-loved across the aisles at the airline, with the employees offering their support to him as well. But it was the Supervisory Board of his own KLM that elected in January to not renew his contract for a third term after the current one expires in May 2023. This had nothing to do with poor performances. On the contrary, Elbers has been the driving force behind the return to profitability before the pandemic kicked in. He steered the airline through the Covid crisis and the highly-sensitive Dutch politics, in which various factions opposed the €3.4 billion state aid package. 

While never confirmed publicly, Elbers has been ousted because of the powerplay within Air France-KLM with Group CEO Benjamin Smith. Since the arrival of Smith, both have been opponents with diverging interests of keeping KLM as strong as possible (Elbers) and integrating KLM more within the group (Smith). Already at the renewal for a second term, Elbers’ position hang in the balance. Mainly thanks to the strong support from his ‘blue family’, his contract was renewed. Five years later, the situation changed. Instead of staying on until next year, Elbers was pushed out early when KLM announced Marjan Rintel as its new CEO. 

Culture shock

Having always worked for a legacy carrier, IndiGo as an ultra-low-cost airline in a totally different market will come as a kind of culture shock to Elbers. He is coming over to IndiGo as it prepares for the next phase of its growth. The airline has ordered 830 Airbus A320neo family aircraft and is one of the largest customers of Airbus globally. Amongst the order is a tranche of the Airbus A321XLR aircraft, which is scheduled to join the airline from 2024 onwards. Elbers visited Airbus Hamburg last week on behalf of KLM and Transavia and saw the XLR prototyope there, which will power the global expansion of IndiGo into markets beyond the Middle East and South-East Asia. The airline is yet to define a product for its long-haul operations and announce a strategy for this expansion. 

Welcoming Elbers, Rahul Bhatia said: “We are thrilled to announce the appointment of Mr. Pieter Elbers as the Chief Executive Officer of the Company. India promises to be the last bastion of ginormous growth globally and given Mr. Elbers’ deep understanding of the business, his legendary leadership qualities coupled with his energy and passion, we are ever so confident that under his stewardship, IndiGo will play a pivotal role in this growth opportunity.”

Responding to his appointment, Elbers said: “What IndiGo’s employees and leadership have jointly built, since its start 16 years ago, is, by any standard, truly impressive. I am very honored and do look forward to building upon this, working together with the entire IndiGo team. I am delighted to become a part of the next stage of IndiGo’s incredible journey, further fulfilling the vision of what the airline can do and will be for its customers and for India.”

(Additional reporting by Richard Schuurman)

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Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe.

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