A coffee with… Juan Carlos Salazar | “The history of aviation is written in Montreal”

The opportunity was too good. On his Twitter account, the new big boss of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Juan Carlos Salazar, seemed to be handing me a pole.

Laura-Julie Perreault

Laura-Julie Perreault

“We are committed to making ICAO better known to Montrealers,” he wrote at the beginning of the fall.

Ah, the good idea! I said to myself. The UN agency has been headquartered in Montreal for 75 years, attracting thousands of diplomats and technical experts from its 193 member states, but its glass tower on Boulevard Robert-Bourassa seems out of reach. The last interview of a journalist from Press with the general secretary of the organization dates back to 2004. That says it all.

But Juan Carlos Salazar’s era of leadership promises to be quite different.

First, because the Colombian lawyer, originally from Medellín, considers Montreal to be his second home for more than 20 years. He did his Masters there at the McGill Institute of Aerospace Law in the late 1990s and has returned there every year since. He always kept friends there.

“Montreal is the center of the world of international aviation,” he said, to explain his choice at the time.

There is the institute where I studied, ICAO, but also a whole group of non-governmental organizations and aerospace companies that form a teeming community.

Juan Carlos Salazar

“So, choosing to study in Montreal, it was obvious,” he says, sitting in one of the deserted lounges of the headquarters of the United Nations body, of which he took the reins last August.

It is in this immense lounge where are aligned dozens of flags that Juan Carlos Salazar receives me with a cup of black coffee and cookies. The vastness of the place could have made the interview almost formal, but the new secretary general is anything but distant. He has an easy smile and a sparkling eye.

So it’s quite ironic that this sociable Colombian took office in the midst of a pandemic, as the teeming community he once knew and loved is scattered across the city, separated by computer screens. But still there.

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Call it quite a coincidence, but, on a journalistic scholarship, I studied at Harvard at the same time as Juan Carlos Salazar. More than that, I realized while preparing for this interview that we took part together in an extraordinary leadership course. In the first session, the professor sat in front of the class in silence and left the 150 or so students to work their way out on their own. For 15 weeks. A sort of laboratory for human behavior and group psychology.

In this large auditorium, we therefore rubbed shoulders without knowing each other, but we were branded with a red iron by this puzzling experience that we shared with the right-hand man of the Rwandan president and a pro-revolutionary Ukrainian basketball player, among other improbable characters who populated the stands. “Before this course, I believed that most problems could be answered with technical answers, by intellectualizing everything, but since then I have been interested in adaptive and transformative leadership. Moreover, when I ran for office to become Secretary General of ICAO, it was part of my platform, ”he laughs.

And God knows problems are raining on his head right now. International civil aviation is going through the biggest crisis in its history. Since the start of the pandemic, air traffic has halved. Airlines have lost over US $ 600 billion in passenger revenue. Never seen.

The kinds of issues we face today require us to adapt much more than in the past 80 years.

Juan Carlos Salazar

“We have to look beyond the borders of civil aviation to face several challenges: border closures, vaccination, testing, different rules imposed by different countries, different cities, different provinces. We must mobilize to find solutions that will work in this new reality, ”he said.

As secretary general of the organization that oversees the safety and security of air transport, it is he who must bring everyone to the table to have these discussions. This is the very mandate of ICAO.

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Juan Carlos Salazar is not his first crisis management. He oversaw the rules surrounding aviation for the government of Colombia after the attacks of September 11, 2001. “I wanted to make a revolution. I worked on this for a year and a half, ticked all the boxes, found all possible solutions, but forgot to work with allies. People in the industry, who felt in danger, came up with their own solutions. In the end, what I had prepared was put aside by the minister and I was forced to put in place the opposite of what I was proposing, ”he recalls, asserting that this bitter failure has prepared to face the mountain he is climbing, one pandemic day at a time.

And the pandemic is not the only issue prominently on its dashboard. Reducing the impact of aviation on the environment is also part of it. “It’s hard to talk about this when you’re in the aviation industry without being on the defensive,” he says. In all, aviation generates 1.5% of greenhouse gases, so yes, several sectors have a bigger impact than ours. However, that does not mean that we do not clearly understand that we must reduce our impact, ”he notes, adding that it was at ICAO that the international community agreed on a first. carbon offset program. “And we have to keep moving forward,” he notes. It is here, at ICAO, that these major – sometimes difficult – discussions will take place which will shape the future. We have been solving all kinds of problems for 80 years; 75 years of aviation history being written here in Montreal, he said thoughtfully. I would like Montrealers to finally know this treasure they have in their city. “

Questionnaire without filter

The coffee and me: Black, still Colombian. It was in Montreal that I became a fan of coffee. It is essential in winter, a coffee with a muffin.

The people I would like to meet at my table, dead or alive: I would like to have dinner with Gandhi, although I doubt he would eat anything since he was fasting all the time. He is truly a fascinating character.

A historic event in which I would have liked to participate: The negotiations leading up to the Chicago Civil Aviation Convention in 1944. I would often oppose what was proposed.

My favorite museums: The Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid were great discoveries for me. I would also add the Botero museum in Medellín. It is worth seeing.

A place where I would take my students: In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, because it’s a magical place where you can see the ocean from the snow-capped mountains, which is rare in such a hot climate. One could meet there the members of native tribes of great wisdom in relation to the environment.

Who is Juan Carlos Salazar?

Born in Medellín, Colombia, he studied law at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in his home country. His first job after graduation was with an airline specializing in freight.

In the late 1990s, he did his Masters at the Institute of Aerospace Law at McGill University. “I have nothing but fantastic memories from this period. My wife, my daughter and I loved everything about this trip, even in winter, ”he says about it. He received a second master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2014.

He was Chairman of the Latin American Civil Aviation Commission and Director General of the Aeronáutica Civil de Colombia before being elected in August Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for a term three years.

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