Benjamin Smith will assume his new position as Air France-KLM’s new CEO Sept. 17, bringing to a close a four month-period in which the airline group was without a permanent boss after the escalation of a labor conflict led to the departure of his predecessor Jean-Marc Janaillac.

Smith, previously Air Canada COO and president-airlines, and the first non-French national to head the Franco-Dutch group, was appointed Aug. 16, after a long drawn-out and tense search for a successor to Janaillac who resigned in May.

Janaillac had staked his future with the company on resolving a long-running labor conflict with Air France employees that had led to 15 strike days earlier in the year.

Smith will be faced with the difficult challenge of calming tensions with Air France unions and workers before turning his attention to a longer-term strategy for the group, which launched the Trust Together plan to improve competitiveness with peers and profitability in 2016 under Janaillac’s leadership. 

Smith’s record of negotiating a long-term agreement with unions at Air Canada is part of the reason he was chosen, but getting Air France pay negotiations back on track will be a tough challenge.

Unions want greater pay increases than the company has so far been prepared to agree to and have threatened to restart strikes after the summer vacation period. They are also skeptical about the appointment of a non-French CEO, saying he could be looking out for foreign shareholders’ interests. The French state holds 14.3% of the group, and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and China Eastern Airlines at 8.8% each.

Helen Massy-Beresford,