October 13th, 2009
11:33 PM GMT
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Five years ago, Garuda Indonesia was an airline that seemed to be on a path of constant turbulence. It was losing money year after year, battling allegations of corruption within the state-owned enterprise and stained with a questionable safety record. Today, Garuda is a symbol of what's possible in the difficult airline industry. You need a leader with focus.

Emirsyah Satar, 50, is the CEO of Garuda. Now in his fifth year as the head of the national airline, he has turned Garuda from problematic to profitable through staged planning. “In the first two years, just surviving was good enough. And then the next two years was the turnaround stage,” he said. Now the airline is embarking on the growth stage.

The son of an Indonesian diplomat who grew up in Mexico City and Prague, Satar went on to become a banker and then the CEO of Bank Danamon, Indonesia's fifth largest bank. In 2005, he was brought to Garuda as President and CEO and he made drastic changes from the start.

"What happened in 2005, the business model was just not working,” Satar said. It increased accountability at all levels in the organization. And in the short term, Satar decided less was more: “We got out of routes where we were losing money … it was ok if we reduced our market so we could become profitable again."

He positioned Garuda as a “premium airline” and told his staff not to worry about local competition. With a domestic population of 240 million people, he bet focus on the cream of the crop would keep Garuda afloat while it restructured. His bet paid off, in part because Indonesia sidestepped the brunt of the global downturn thanks to the strength of its domestic market: Indonesia's economy is still growing at around 4 percent.

While Garuda is still juggling $700 million in debt, the state-owned enterprise has been able to turn a profit the past two years. Satar has plans to make what he calls a "quantum leap."  By 2014, he wants to bring the fleet from the current 66 to 116 aircraft.

The big challenge now is getting a stalled IPO back on track. Satar had wanted to bring Garuda public this year, but the global downturn put a halt to that. Now he's shooting for an IPO for June 2010. The airline is also in the process of restructuring its debt, which Satar hopes to have completed by the end of this month.

Then there was the issue of safety. In the past decade, a string of crashes involving various Indonesian airlines eroded the public trust in Indonesian air safety. In March 2007, a Garuda plane overshot a runway in Yogyakarta and crashed, killing 21 people. In June 2007, the European Union banned all Indonesian airlines in European airspace. Satar hired an American consultant and and cracked down on safety issues. In July of this year, the EU lifted the ban on certain airlines included Garuda.

The airline now plans to get into the long-haul market, starting with an Indonesia-Amsterdam route by June 2010. That will be followed by routes to Frankfurt, London, Paris, Rome and eventually in 2012, Los Angeles.

"We (Garuda) travel to Australia, Japan, Korea, China and these people still travel. And Bali is still a good attraction," Satar said.

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