x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Airline chief with common touch

Peter Hill is renowned for his deft personal touch over almost half a century at carriers from Dubai to London. His career included a stint at SriLankan Airlines, which featured a rebel attack that destroyed half its fleet and a row with the nation's president

Peter Hill, the chief executive of Oman Air.
Peter Hill, the chief executive of Oman Air.

In his nearly 50 years of running airlines from London to Dubai, to Colombo and now Muscat, Peter Hill has become known in his industry for a few select moments when he stood up for the common man.

He famously said no to a presidential request in Sri Lanka, leading to his dismissal as chief executive of SriLankan Airlines. The moment that made Mr Hill famous occurred in 2007, when he was in his ninth year guiding the company. In December of that year, with the holiday high season in full swing, a late request came in to clear 35 seats for the president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage on a flight to Colombo from London, where Mr Rajapaksa was watching his son graduate from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

The flight was already fully booked. Faced with the prospect of displacing three dozen passengers who had booked tickets months in advance for their big holiday, Mr Hill baulked. "It wasn't a difficult decision," he recalls. "I simply took it. The consequences of honouring that request would have really destroyed everything that we built SriLankan Airlines into; that staff and supporters and customers had come to expect."

The government's abrupt response was to revoke Mr Hill's work permit. Years earlier, he took a break from the business and set up a pub in Camden, a suburb of London, in between airline jobs in the 1990s. Pulling pints for the after-work crowd, he had plenty of tales to amuse the regulars. For high drama, try putting yourself in his shoes in 1985, when he helped start Emirates Airline, the most successful airline launch of the past 30 years, or 2001, when he helped SriLankan Airlines rise from the ashes after Tamil Tigers blew up half of his fleet in an audacious airport raid.

Through it all, Mr Hill, who is now in his mid-60s, says he never strayed from his humble roots while coming up the ranks at British Overseas Airways Corporation, which was to become British Airways, in London as a commercial trainee. "I've been lucky in getting to know people in top places: high-flying guys; politicians," says Mr Hill, who is now the chief executive of Oman Air. "But I guess I also like to know friends in low places, you know what I mean?"

Mr Hill's interest in people, no matter their rank, wasn't the only thing that distinguished him from the crowd. "He has such a good brain, he can tackle anything," says Maurice Flanagan, who started Emirates Airline. In 1978, Mr Flanagan hired Mr Hill, who was at Gulf Air at the time, for DNATA, an airline ticketing and ground-handling company in Dubai. Seven years later, Mr Hill would help Mr Flanagan start Emirates.

Mr Flanagan, the executive vice chairman of the Dubai airline, praises Mr Hill's skills at everything from setting up reservations systems to negotiations, but also noted his value as a companion. "He was a lot of fun to have around," he says. In what could be his last airline job in a career that began in 1961, Mr Hill took the reins at Oman Air in 2008 and has been working to help the airline jump-start the country's growing tourism industry.

"I'll stay as long as I'm wanted, and I'm adding value," he says. "But I wouldn't expect it to be that much longer; you know, a couple of more years, maybe." His next adventure, he says, will be running the foundation he and his wife have set up in Sri Lanka. "There will be someone else by then to take it over and I'll be able to go home and put my feet up and work on our foundation." It will mean a return to Sri Lanka, despite his abrupt departure three years ago. It was no way to treat a man who guided the emergency response at the airline when it was caught up in one of the country's violent political struggles. In 2001, Tamil Tigers, the rebel group, attacked the airport in the early hours of the morning and in the ensuing crossfire with police, four aeroplanes were destroyed, including one plane that had been delivered just four weeks earlier and another eight weeks before that.

Mr Hill got a call at 3.40 in the morning from an employee describing the chaos inside the passenger terminal. "Do you hear all that noise? Those are bullets," his duty officer said. The terminal was evacuated and five hours later the military carried Mr Hill over to the airport in a military helicopter with soldiers manning machine guns at each doorway. "We had a good look at 5,000 feet over the airport," he says. "There were still some rebels in the airport that had moved into the terminal building and some firing still going on. And there was our four aircraft hulks actually burning on the ramp, split and broken. It was terrible.All you saw was the tail, the two engines and the broken fuselage, all burned."

But Mr Hill had the airline flying again after 36 hours. During the next six months, when travel to Sri Lanka dropped, it made most of its flights via the Maldives, effectively serving as that island nation's own airline with direct services to Japan and the UK. "That winter we recovered quite a bit of business as well as credibility within the industry," he says. This was one of the low points. The high point of his career came 16 years earlier, when the first flight for Emirates Airline took off at 11.45am on October 25 1985 bound for Karachi. It was an improbable conclusion to a business plan writing process that Mr Hill had undertaken with several others.

Ironically, the business plan did not wholeheartedly endorse launching an airline. The recommendation stemmed from the fact that Dubai was being pressured by Gulf Air to recognise it as the emirate's official airline. With the very real prospect that Gulf Air would pull out all services, which would have choked off trade and commerce, plans for an airline were drawn up. The first business plan was to initially run a small fleet of Boeing 737s operating to GCC cities to replace the routes Gulf Air would abandon. A second phase called for flying to the Indian subcontinent.

But three months before launch date, Mr Hill, Mr Flanagan and the rest of the planners were forced to abandon the GCC rollout because they were unable to obtain the traffic rights. "We didn't get any of them," Mr Hill recalls. So Karachi was its first route, and the result is history. Emirates is not only the most profitable airline in the Middle East, it is also one of the world's largest. "We never expected in our wildest dreams it would take off to the success it did," he says.

"It was a wild ride, Ride of the Valkyries stuff: up and up and up." igale@thenational.ae