For Want of a Plane

Michael R. Czinkota

High hopes were placed into the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. After all, many policy leaders with different voices were present. In particular, German Chancellor Merkel’s role as a seeker of compromise was fully scripted. She was to assure low tariff levels for cars with President Trump, broach new approaches for debt management with Argentina and discuss issues on Ukraine with President Putin. Alas, the expected discussions were disrupted. The Chancellor’s ride did not get there.

When Mrs. Merkel departed Germany, all plans seemed to be on track. Cabinet members, the German Foreign Service team and a gaggle of journalists had moderately filled the Chancellor’s official airplane. But after only one of thirteen hours of flight time the machine had to turn around for an unplanned landing. Communication was on the fritz, gas could not be ditched and the subsequent landing back in Cologne/Bonn was heavy. Harsh as it sounds, parked planes don’t fly.

Minor the inconvenience say you. In an era when the CEO of a declining U.S. multinational firm like GE’s Jeff Immelt always had a back-up plane accompany him, surely all the German Air Force had to do was roll out the spare and fly on. Perish the thought! There was a back-up plane. But it had taken off homeward bound for budget reasons once the main trip seemed on track. Also, the spare crew could not perform within regulation time limits.

The German airline Lufthansa was all out of planes for trips to Argentina. Only the Spanish airline Iberia had a direct hop out of Madrid. Not all passengers were excited when their quite empty cabin was suddenly filled up by bureaucrats and guards. Yet others reported that Mrs. Merkel was quiet, focused and smiling at Selfies.

Wagging tongues have suggested that, in light of the harsh electoral decline of her party, Mrs. Merkel wanted to get re-acquainted with more popular forms of transportation. Others wonder what Germany’s founding Chancellor Bismarck or, worse yet, what President Trump would have said to this failure. Perhaps the lack of a plane tosses Germany, or even the entire European Union into political turmoil.

The problem is not the short-term direct effects, but rather the long-term repercussion which paints reality. How effective are international marketing slogans and expectation emphasizing progress and technology, when the country leader’s plane won’t fly and airports won’t operate? What happens to the brand value of time when a key leader arrives half a day late? How can one be a useful arbiter while not on location? And all this happened just when CEBIT, one of Germany’s largest trade fairs for technology and communication had to close down. Is all this witness to a transition away from leadership struts to execution missteps?

The German aircraft debacle is of major import and impact. Mrs. Merkel may have become more forgiving to her staff. But even though she nods and smiles more, her partners in international discussions take delays very seriously. For them, late is late, which greatly undermines efficiency.

As to President Trump’s perspective on these events, he may worry less than expected. First, the problems reaffirm his demand for a substantial increase in European spending on defense. Of equal importance: why should he care about the quality of German planes – he has his own and they fly.

Professor Czinkota (czinkotm@georgetown.edu) teaches international marketing and trade at Georgetown University and the University of Kent in Canterbury. His latest book is In Search For The Soul of International Business, (Businessexpertptress.com) 2019

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