Ahmed Shafik A fighter by nature
Minister of Civil Aviation, Air Marshall People of my generation experienced the 6th of October War when we were about ten years old. We grew up proud of the glory and the victory achieved in the war and the heroes of that war were well known and meant a lot to us. We lived in a time of patriotic songs and movies and that era has a special meaning for us. Even today, when we hear about or meet some of those heroes, it still brings back memories so strong that they evoke the flavour of the times. We become full of respect and take great pride in shaking hands with them. Air Marshal Shafik evokes these memories and, in addition, his strong performance as a Cabinet Minister and all he has accomplished for Civil Aviation in Egypt adds to the respect we feel.
If you do an evaluation or a comparison of the various ministries in Egypt, It will not take you long to come to the conclusion that at the top of the list in terms of progress, achievements and real development, you will find the Ministry of Civil Aviation. To understand why, you only have to visit the newly enlarged and renovated airport in Cairo or the refurbished and renovated airports in Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh and some of the other governorates. You can also fly EgyptAir with its enlarged fleet of new aircraft, skilled flight crews and efficient cabin crews and, with its affiliation with Star Alliance, it puts our National Airline at the same level as other major respected carriers such as Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific and gives further confirmation of the Ministry’s success.
This was not an easy mission to tackle but the man who accomplished it is accustomed to taking on big challenges and achieving positive results. He is a fighter by nature, a former military fighter pilot who served in four wars and is used to taking careful aim at a target and hitting it. He is also known for always bringing himself and his aircraft back to base undamaged despite many ferocious battles. After the wars were over, he did not change much. He kept the same spirit of diligently pursuing his target, not in battle but in developing a very important sector of the government Civil Aviation. The man is the Minister of Civil Aviation, Air Marshal Ahmed Shafik.
As I prepared for the interview with this famous individual, I was both very eager to meet him and do an interview but at the same time I was a little concerned I would find a very taciturn man and it might be difficult to get answers to some of my questions and tackle hot issues with him. So I was very pleased and surprised that, when I met him, I found a quiet, polite, humble and responsive man that within him could still be seen a sense of the spirit of the fighter.
Before the interview with Marshal Shafik, I had been advised by people who knew him and some of the people around him in
the Ministry, not to talk about his military career because he does not like talking about it but to concentrate on his role as Minster of Civil Aviation. However, with so much fighting spirit I attributed a lot of his success in civilian life to his military background and training.
I did not hesitate to ask him if his military experience was the main reason for his success in changing and improving the operations of the Ministry. He replied; “It is one of the reasons but it is not the main one. There are many good managers and government bureaucrats and ministers who do not have a military background and they are successful without it. There are also many people that retire or leave military service and leave the training and discipline behind them too, so it does not mean a military background ensures success in later life but it is an added value. I started my interview by asking Marshal Shafik what the major challenges and issues had been that he wanted to deal with when he was appointed Minister of Civil Aviation in 2002 and what were the obstacles that he had faced in changing things. “I was honoured to have President Mubarak choose me as Minister after my 40 year career in the military and although I came from the Air Force which has some things in common with Civil Aviation, there are also some great differences in the way they function and the nature of the organisation which is why I felt I needed some time to study and understand the situation and the issues facing the ministry. One of these issues was the management team at the ministry. The management had been in place for quite awhile. Some people had been at managerial level in the ministry for 20 years,” he explained. “It is known that it is difficult to put changes into effect and to develop organisations in the face of an entrenched management. It is also difficult to get them to change their opinions, their methods and their working style.
So, for the first months that I was at the ministry, I carefully studied what was going on and came to the conclusion that the people at managerial level were not the best people for those positions and so I used my skill in taking careful aim at targeting those people with good managerial skills to put them at the top of the management structure. It is not difficult to hire or appoint someone for a managerial position but sometimes you recognise that you have made a mistake and appoint someone different. The problems arise when you make a bad decision and you are afraid to admit it and correct it.”
Besides making changes in the management within the Ministry, Marshal Shafik brought in some skilled and experienced personnel from outside. “During those days many people attacked me for bringing in people and expertise from the outside,” he recalls. “But this is what all countries do; they shop around and get the best expertise from where ever they can and from whomever they can and put the right person in the right place. It doesn’t matter if it comes from inside the system or from outside, what matters is that he is the perfect person to do the job. In the end I didn’t get too many people from the outside; it took very few to join the management team that had always been with the ministry,” he emphasised.
In some situations he brought in foreign companies and expertise and sees no problem in doing this. “One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to say that we are the best and do not need any help. Even the most developed countries look around for the best expertise available and sometimes bring it in from foreign sources. It is important to take what is good and suitable for you and leave what is not. I am proud I used some outside expertise for some missions in developing the sector.”
The first challenge then was getting his staff organised. The second one was developing a plan, implementing it on time and then evaluating it and making whatever further adjustments were necessary. Early in his ministerial role, Marshal Shafik was often the subject of criticism by the media, the public and even from people within the ministry itself. This was something he had
become accustomed to early in life. “After some time passes, people begin to understand your vision and to begin to accept your personal opinions and your dedication, they then see the positive progress and results start to come and the goals of the plan being achieved, so they change their minds.”
One of the earliest problems Marshal Shafik had to face as Minister of Civil Aviation was the national carrier, EgyptAir, which had become a problem for the Government. There were voices telling him to sell the airline and there were voices telling him to minimise its role in Civil Aviation in favour of private airlines. Marshal Shafik favoured a third alternative, to rebuild and repair EgyptAir and keep it the government owned national carrier.
“I remember those days very well,” he said. “I suggested then, for political reasons, to sell 20 percent of the shares of the company on the stock market. People were calling on me to privatise, to sell. I suggested the sale of shares but we did not do it. From day to day and from month to month, people started to feel the strength of the airline return and watch it recover its reputation. I myself did not want to sell even one percent of the shares. This proved that we were strong and people started looking at us in a different way. Even these days, some of the media still ask me about that 20 percent and I reply that there was and is no need to sell any part of EgyptAir. We are achieving our plan and improving ourselves.” Fleet size was one of the major issues during the problems with EgyptAir. At one point, the airline had a fleet of 32 aircraft and was serving 84 destinations with that small fleet. I asked the Marshal what the current situation was.
“By the end of 2011 EgyptAir will have a total of 75 aircraft but let me play with words a little bit with you; I won’t tell you how many direct destinations we serve but I will tell you that we serve more than 1000. Since we joined Star Alliance, one of the largest airline alliances and the most prestigious, we can make connections by ourselves and go to all the destinations that the airlines which are part of Star Alliance serve. This is in addition to the code sharing system between the companies, so with EgyptAir’s reputation having grown so much in the worldmarket now, airline companies are approaching us and asking us to activate code sharing with
them which ads more destinations EgyptAir can offer its customers without having the cost and headache of flying its own aircraft to those destinations.”
Of all our discussions on the challenges The Marshall had faced, there was one he had not mentioned, the several strike threats that EgyptAir pilots and air traffic controllers had made. He had dealt with these threats quickly and firmly and I asked what his thoughts were on that issue. “This was definitely one of the challenges I faced,” he agreed. “Yes I was very firm in dealing with the strike threat and let me will explain why. I do not mind when people make requests and express their views but when you do you should do it in a way which does not destroy the organisation from where you earn your living, ruin your future or damage the nation’s assets. Abroad, in Europe and the US, strikes are organised and handled in a way that does not cause catastrophic damage. A strike is a way to express oneself not to twist arms or destroy something. People have to understand their responsibilities.
When I saw the way the pilots and controller were organising their strike with a very heavy hand and taking no responsibility for the huge loss it would cause, I had to be very firm and sharp in my action. Despite the need to be strong and resolute in facing the strike in the end, one has to show humanity and examine closely where change is necessary especially when it concerns
salaries and income. I am now proud I can say that never in history has there been such a high percentage increase in the salaries and wages of the workers and staff of the ministry. Today, one can say that the Ministry of Civil Aviation has given the highest increase in salaries, not only to the pilots but to everyone starting from the lowest level with the office boys and cleaners. We dealt with the strike threat with balance, we did not allow damage to occur and we did not let our arms get twisted but we listened, paid attention,raised salaries and examined all the cases, even for those groups that did not threaten to strike.”
He received much criticism for the big salary increases and responded to his critics by saying that building and strengthening the human resources of an organisation is a bigger and better investment than putting up buildings or buying machines or airplanes. “It does not matter how much profit the ministry makes we can make half that amount of profit and put the other half into making a healthy committed staff.” The ministry makes sure that the entire staff receives the best medical attention whether inside Egypt or abroad. There is a very sophisticated medical centre that even does organ transplants and the first ministry employee to receive a transplant, in this case a liver transplant, was a member of the ground service crew, not a manager or a pilot.
“The employees, when they feel you care about them, increase their level of loyalty and their productivity
increases as well,” Marshal Shafik emphasises.
Under Marshal Shafik, the ministry has established a social club for employees. There is also a kindergarten where the staff can take their children while they are at work. The sons and daughters of the ministry staff who have the proper skills are given priority when the kindergarten hires new supervisors or teachers. The Marshal had said that he does not like to link his military background with his current responsibilities but I felt that the way he had handled the strike threat with strength and resoluteness is a result of his military career. I asked him whether he agreed.
“The military is definitely a great school for management; it has no competition in that. It is a place where you can show your courage and your willingness and capability to be a leader,” he responded. “It also teaches you that to achieve your goals you have to have perseverance and persistence. You have to understand that the military can bring out the discipline in an individual because it is necessary in military service and if discipline is a part of your basic personality and you can concentrate on reaching your goals then, the military experience is a good source of value to you. In the beginning at the Ministry of Civil Aviation, some of my colleagues advised me that I should not use my military management style and that I should not run the business of the ministry in a military manner because the ministry was a civilian organisation. I rejected this advice and told those who gave it that if they went to some of the factories in the 6th of October or Tenth of Ramadan City that manufacture high quality Egyptian products for export, the managers use a style and sophisticated system of management that is very similar to that of the military, although the owners and managers of the factories do not have a military background.
I remarked that, as a Minister, he took very strong and aggressive actions, perhaps bolder than other ministries are willing to take, so I asked The Marshal if that was because he had the full support of the high political authorities. President Mubarak had visited the Ministry in July and spent time checking on the Ministry’s work including the airports and new constructions. Is this as a result of your long background with President Mubarak? He was anxious to clarify immediately that the visits he receives from President Mubarak are far fewer than those received by the other ministries. “I can agree with you,” he went on, “I am lucky because I had the honour to serve with the President in the Air Force for a long time and his trust in me I take with great responsibility on my shoulders and I do my utmost to retain this trust. I also understand President Mubarak’s nature and I understand that if I am not good in my position and I am not achieving my goals I will leave and he will not support me. I know from working with the President for many years that only the quality of my work will support me. If I ever relax my concentration and deviate from the plan I will be gone immediately so I work very hard to meet his expectations.”
It is clear that the honour of having served, firstly as Air Force Commandant and then as Minister of Civil Aviation under President Mubarak, is a real motivation for Marshal Shafik to respond to his trust by working very hard and doing his utmost to achieve the goals the President expects him to reach. Then we came to the subject of EgyptAir. Most of the airlines in the world are not profitable and I asked the Marshal how EgyptAir was doing. “The money you pay for an airline ticket to a destination will not cover the cost of getting you there and will not be a source of profit to the airline. The ancillary services and other industry sectors that interface and work with the airline are where the money is made. That is why we established several holding companies within the ministry: a company for the airline, a company for ground services, one for catering and another for maintenance. It is clear that many National airlines are being supported by their governments because they have been losing money for years. EgyptAir has been supported financially by the government for only one year, 2005. Since then the government has not spent a piaster on EgyptAir. “
The Airline has received various loans over the years including one from the World Bank and one from the Japanese Cooperation Bank to cover the cost of airport facilities and equipment. Marshal Shafik was adamant in stating that not one instalment on these loans had been as much as 24 hours late.
Another critical area facing the ministry is the question of an open sky policy across the nation where any carrier is allowed to operate at any Egyptian airport without any limit on the frequency of their flights. He has been pressed by the Tourism authorities and others to allow an open sky policy.
“Making a deal requires getting some benefit from the deal,” he exclaimed. “Making a deal and losing from it is not a good idea.
Even the creators of the open sky policy in the US and Europe don’t do it blindly. They set it up and adjust it so that they get
exactly what they want out of it. Let me tell you: this idea was invented to allow the big airlines eat the small ones. An airline
with 100 planes can manipulate the market so it works against the company with 20 aircraft. I think about what is useful and profitable for my country and use what is good for EgyptAir and allows it to keep its place in the world. It was not a win-win situation for Egypt and I refused the open sky policy at Cairo International Airport except for charter flights bringing in tourists. However, I opened the airports in other cities to scheduled flights from other airlines. This way we have fewer internal flights and can bring in more travellers from Europe via EgyptAir.”
Marsa Alam airport is owned by the Kuwaiti company, the Kharafi group, under the “Build Operate Transfer” (BOT) concept. I asked the Marshal if he thought that had been an effective deal. He replied that he did think it had been a successful deal but he wished he could make similar deals where the capital involved was Egyptian not foreign to increase the overall benefit.
General aviation is another growing concept in Egypt. “Now anybody can own and fly a private jet anywhere in Egypt as long as they follow the safety and security regulations,” he said. This brought us to AVEX, the air show in Sharm El Sheikh and a favourite initiative of The Marshals. I asked him why he initiated it. “AVEX is considered a very important element in showing the world that we are in the civil aviation sector to stay. Yes I know it is not a big show and it is a specialised show. Sometimes we bring
in large aircraft to exhibit because it is an important gathering and it puts us on the world aviation map. Other countries have bigger shows but for us this is just a start. Our goal is to make Sharm El Sheikh the biggest centre in the region for the servicing of private, corporate and even charter aircraft. Here they can bring their planes for excellent service, maintenance or renovation and while the work is being done, they can spend two or three days in one of the finest tourist destinations in the world.
Egyptian pilots are well known in the industry for their skill and when I mentioned this to Marshal Shafik he replied that it was due to superior training and took the opportunity to tell me about the new licensed training centre the Ministry had built in Egypt. It is
very sophisticated and certified by the world’s best schools to train pilots, navigators and technicians. At the end of the interview I asked him this last question. You are a fighter by nature, what battles have you not yet fought but want to. He laughed and said; “Honestly, whenever I tried to hide my fighting spirit I couldn’t. I am honoured to have been a fighter and when I don’t have a target I feel lost. I can say that now that I am getting old and may leave the ministry today or tomorrow but I hope that the plans and the goals that are good and positive will be continued and implemented. I don’t want those plans and projects just to be kept as papers in the archives.
Publish date: May 1, 2010