Cathay Pacific chief attributes his personal success to the airline's great teamwork, which was put to the test this year Asked why he thought the judges chose him as winner of the 2003 Executive Award in the DHL/SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards, Cathay Pacific Airways deputy chairman and chief executive David Turnbull laughs and says, 'I haven't a clue'. Actually Mr Turnbull has an idea of why, although he considers this not so much a personal accolade as a tribute to Cathay's teamwork - a factor rigorously tested and well proven in a notably difficult year. 'Everyone says that their company is a team effort, but for airlines it's particularly true. Nothing works without the engineers, and you've got to have the pilots, the cabin crew, the ground handling and so on. To get a passenger from here to London safely requires a huge organisational machine. Airlines really are about teams,' he says. Teams must have captains, however, and Mr Turnbull has been leading his since 1998. He is also chairman of the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (Haeco), a director of Swire Pacific Ltd and a director of John Swire & Sons (HK), which makes him a busy man, so answers to questions tend to be short and to the point. His career path has followed a classic Swire Group pattern. He joined the company in 1976, from Cambridge University where he earned an economics degree. As with all 'Swire princes', he moved around the group, mostly working at Cathay and Haeco, and he clearly loves the aviation business. In 1998, however, the top job with Hong Kong's flag carrier must have looked less enticing than usual. The Asian economic crisis was at full throttle and the travelling public was not travelling. One task Mr Turnbull had was to shed staff. 'By attrition and, unfortunately, retrenchment we reduced almost one in four ground jobs,' he says. 'Those things are never pleasant, but in a way I'm glad we got that over early in the piece because had we not done it then, we might have had to do it later when 9/11 and Sars came along, which many carriers did. We didn't have to retrench a single person during Sars.' Crises of one kind or another have featured in Mr Turnbull's life since assuming his role. He steered the airline to recovery after the Asian financial crisis, only to have passenger levels hit by global panic after the September 11 attacks. A bitter industrial dispute with the pilots union followed and then came what he calls 'the worst time of all' with Sars. Bad though that was, however, Hong Kong's and Cathay's recovery were remarkably swift. By September 30, all the flights suspended amid the health crisis had been restored and it was flying more frequently than it had in January. Cathay's free ticket campaign and support of promotional programmes was perceived as a main engine of Hong Kong's recovery. 'We didn't know how long it [Sars] was going to last and we were bleeding heavily. We're a private company, not a huge conglomerate, and after a month or two it was starting to look pretty unpleasant. 'The staff responded in the most magnificent manner. It's not that we're going to have a great year - we're not - but I'm glad to say we're able to pay them back now that we're out of danger,' he says. The Sars experience appears to have helped rebuild certain bridges between the pilots and management, and Mr Turnbull is cautiously optimistic about relations improving in the future. 'I think things are on a better footing and I'm hoping that they will improve. Clearly, we've had some difficult times, and I think you've got to look at it in the context of what was happening at the time across the world. Every airline was having difficulties of the same ilk that we were. I think it's better, but both sides have got some work to do to see if we can put it on a good firm footing for a long period,' he says. Another challenge this year was positioning Cathay to re-enter the China market against dogged opposition from Dragonair. He regrets that the problem had to be resolved in court. 'I thought it wasn't necessary personally. Twelve days of court time seems rather peculiar for an air traffic licence. The reason we want Beijing and Shanghai is that those are the destinations that people ... want to connect to. ... We made it quite clear that we were not going to object to licences for them to fly on our routes, but the licence at the Hong Kong end is only the first step,' he says. For all the ups and downs involved in managing Cathay during turbulent times, Mr Turnbull loves his job and takes a pride in his team and its achievements. So what makes it all worthwhile? 'Seeing the staff proud of the company, seeing passengers like it, seeing it grow. Hearing people talk well about it. Those things are good. It's a machine really, which you keep ticking.'