In a surprise announcement, Ms Wrenelle Stander announced she is leaving her job as CEO of AASA – just 6 weeks after her arrival. Guy Leitch gets the inside story of this unexpected move.

Wesgro has brought together an effective public-private sector partnership.

Ms Wrenelle Stander’s sudden and unexpected departure from the CEO position at the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) is the culmination of a tumultuous few years.

Her job before accepting the position of CEO at AASA was as the CEO of Comair, the operator of the British Airways’ franchise in South Africa and low cost carrier, kulula.com. She had joined Comair in October 2018, with perfectly bad timing – shortly before the arrival of a perfect storm. The airline’s fleet expansion was based on the Boeing 737 Max and then, within a year after the Max’s grounding, Covid hit.

Under those pressures it was inevitable that, in May 2020, the airline was forced into Business Rescue. Wrenelle had the unhappy task of steering the mortally wounded airline into its first loss – and finally an ownership takeover.

Wrenelle left Comair at the end of December 2020 and soon a number of suitors were beating a path to her door with job offers. She accepted the position of CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) to replace the long-serving Chris Zweigenthal, who has retired to join his family in the USA.

Wrenelle’s experience as the CEO of a Southern African airline made her well-qualified to be CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA). In addition to being CEO of Comair, she has had a stellar career in aviation and corporate management. It was therefore a coup for AASA when they managed to recruit her, starting as CEO in July 2021.

But, less than two months after getting her feet under her desk at AASA, Wrenelle unexpectedly announced that she was leaving – to take up a job at Wesgro in Cape Town. Wesgro has been an extraordinary success story as the agency tasked to mobilise investment in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. In particular, Wesgro’s Cape Air Access Initiative has been – up until the Covid-19 lockdown – a fantastic example of how important air connectivity is to a region’s growth.

The Cape Air Access Initiative has opened up routes from around the world to bring people to Cape Town.

Having operated at the top level in government, the aviation regulator and the private sector, Wrenelle has a unique set of skills. She began her career in the Department of Transport where she rose to become Chief Director of aviation and maritime regulation and also served as Deputy CEO of the SA Civil Aviation Authority. She then became the Managing Director of South Africa’s Air Traffic Navigation Service (ATNS) and followed that in the multinational Sasol Gas business. She has held executive and non-executive directorships on many boards.

Wrenelle has a BA (Hons) from the University of Cape Town, followed by an MBA from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

 ‘The industry’s recovery is likely to be protracted.’

As a natural leader with a foundation of solid academic qualifications and CEO experience in the airline industry, she has a unique skills’ set. Asked what her particular talents are that make her a good candidate for the Wesgro CEO position, she says, “Finding the sweet spot in the nexus between government and industry is the thread that has strung together my various roles in the energy and aviation industries and is crucial to the vital role that the air transport industry fulfils.”

It is her appreciation of the key role of the airline industry in enabling broad economic growth that enticed Wrenelle to move across to Wesgro. “The prospect of joining Wesgro and taking overall accountability for positioning the Western Cape as one of the world’s leading regional economies is very stimulating. Joining Wesgro will allow me a challenging, yet exciting opportunity to plough back into the economy of the city where I was born,” she says.

Wrenelle has deep roots in the Western Cape. “I was born in Diep River in Cape Town and completed primary, secondary, as well as my tertiary education there. After 28 years of studying and working in Oxford, Pretoria and Johannesburg, I will be returning back home, to where my family still lives.”

She says, “I will certainly be able to leverage these skills to the full extent. Wesgro is uniquely positioned to provide a link between the public and private sector to collaborate and ensure that the Western Cape economy is one of the world’s leading regional economies.”

When asked what attracted her enough to make the jump to Wesgro she says, “One of the biggest attractions for me is the platform Wesgro provides to make a difference to the lives of people who live and work in the Western Cape. Wesgro has a great reputation and has done really great work in attracting and retaining direct investment in the Western Cape; facilitating the growth of exports; as well as positioning and marketing the province as a competitive and sustainable tourism and film destination globally.”

Perhaps the biggest casualty in the sudden maelstrom has been AASA. The AASA CEO position was also one that would enable Wrenelle to make best use of her skill set. But she is fully aware that she is starting at a most difficult time. When she took the job she said, “Most analysts agree that the global industry will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis with smaller and fewer airlines. However, in Africa, the drivers for air travel and air freight are more fundamental and remain undiminished by the crisis, for example: population growth and large distances between markets, which are often characterised by hostile terrain, with few navigable rivers, no long-distance rapid rail network and bottlenecks at land frontiers. We want to work with governments and industry to address those needs in a way that is economically, socially, commercially and environmentally sustainable.”

‘Wesgro contributed R6 billion in direct tourism spend.’

Her vision for AASA has a remarkable congruence for her move to Wesgro. She says, “My vision is for an airline industry which connects as many customers with as many markets as possible; where publicly and privately owned airlines compete with clear rules, where regulators hold service providers accountable for safety and efficiency and where airlines, airports and air navigation providers deliver excellent and good value-for-money services for the benefit of their respective customers.”

Wesgros Cape Air Access initiative has been a remarkable success.

When asked about the future role of AASA she said, “Aviation enables growth and drives socio-economic integration. To maximise these benefits we need to accelerate the industry’s liberalisation and open up markets to increased competitive air connectivity.

“Africa is a large, diverse region, with economies all moving at different speeds. As a result, the outcomes for African carriers will be heavily dependent on economic policies.

“Our industry’s recovery is likely to be protracted. IATA forecasts a return to 2019 international traffic levels in 2024 and it is unlikely that Africa’s market will recover to its pre-pandemic levels of 115 million passengers (74 million international & 41 million domestic) overnight.

She readily acknowledges that; “Leaving AASA was never going to be easy. I will miss AASA’s wonderful team of people. Fortunately, I will still be working very closely with them, as well as colleagues in the aviation industry.”

One of Wesgro’s biggest success stories has been the Cape Air Access Initiative (CAAI). This is expected to be the project where she will be able to add most value. She says, “The Cape Air Access Initiative focuses on broadening the Western Cape’s international air access and growing the tourism sector, which is largely built on visiting international tourists.”

Since its launch in 2015 the CAAI has launched 19 new air routes direct to Cape Town and facilitated 23 route expansions. This more than doubled seat capacity at Cape Town International Airport, adding almost 1.5 million two-way seats to the Cape Town network and contributing and estimated R6 billion in direct tourism spend.

Wrenelle will join Wesgro after handing over to her successor at AASA.

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