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Jean-Cyril Spinetta

Air France hardly looked like a world-beater when Jean-Cyril Spinetta took the controls in 1997. It was Europe's No.3 airline behind British Airways PLC (BAB) and Lufthansa and struggled with chronic labor unrest and high operating costs. Yet Spinetta today oversees an airline that is soaring. With its acquisition of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines on May 4, the now-privatized company is the world's biggest airline by revenue -- with $24 billion in annual sales -- and No.3 worldwide in passenger traffic. It boasts some of the healthiest financials in the industry.

Equally startling, the man who led this transformation is a career civil servant, appointed by Socialists. Spinetta, 60, is a graduate of France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration who spent more than two decades in government, including stints in the Education and Transport Ministries. Although he's a licensed pilot, his only airline work experience, for three years in the early 1990s, was as head of Air Inter, a regional airline that was later merged into Air France.

Even before the KLM deal, Spinetta had supercharged growth by forging an alliance with Delta Air Lines on transatlantic routes, while investing to develop Air France's spacious Paris hub so that profitable business passengers could connect easily from long-haul to intra-European flights. The partial collapse of the hub's newest terminal on May 23 could slow growth, especially if the structure has to be demolished and rebuilt. Still, under Spinetta, Air France looks firmly on course.

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