PROFILE: Richard Hedges, American Airlines - Hedges in dreamland at American Airlines. Aviation fanatic Richard Hedges was born for his role as head of corp comms

Richard Hedges' dreams came true this month as he took the reins as head of corporate communications for American Airlines in Europe. The mild-mannered aviation enthusiast now occupies a spacious office at AA's complex in Hounslow, with an uninterrrupted view of the main take-off runway at Heathrow.

Richard Hedges' dreams came true this month as he took the reins as head of corporate communications for American Airlines in Europe. The mild-mannered aviation enthusiast now occupies a spacious office at AA's complex in Hounslow, with an uninterrrupted view of the main take-off runway at Heathrow.

He has come a long way since debuting in PR as a Midlands-based graduate with a brief to attract both tourist and business visitors to Birmingham. His first job - after a communications degree at what is now Coventry University - was as a trainee account executive at Nicholas Mendes Associates.

The slight Brummie lilt in Hedges' accent is disarming, betraying his authentic Midlands roots and his stout refusal to change with the times. Journalists who have worked with him for many years say his style is the antithesis of the smooth PR operator prevalent at most major airlines. Philip Davis, editor of leading travel industry weekly the Travel Trade Gazette, says Hedges' lack of airs and graces 'makes him seem trustworthy. You get the feeling he could go off the record and be completely frank with you even while protecting his client's interests.'

Those 'clients' have changed little over the years, mainly because of his passion for the aviation world. Leaving Nicholas Mendes two years on, Hedges joined data communications firm CASE as PR executive. He lasted only 20 months, before becoming Britannia Airways' first dedicated press officer. This post - and a succession of promotions to PR manager and latterly head of communications - saw Hedges build on the knowledge he had already acquired and indulge his passion for flying machines.

In 14 years at Britannia, Hedges says, he maintained his interest in the aviation field while expanding the breadth of his experience in PR. His role expanded to cover media relations, internal communications, marcoms and some public affairs support.

Despite his two decades of experience in communications, he is frequently described by all who know him as an aviation nut. Alan Hyde, who worked with Hedges at Britannia before joining train operator GNER as head of corporate affairs, remembers Hedges spending his lunch break 'in the car listening to an air band radio to hear the pilots calling in as they came down to land'.

This obsession - it is one to which Hedges freely admits - has stood him in good stead over the years.

Industry watchers are impressed by someone who clearly cares and knows a lot about the sector in which he operates. Philip Davis says: 'His specialist knowledge is absolutely vital.

So often the PR person lacks that and misses the nuances of the business. That is not the case with Hedges.'

His expert knowledge will be put to good use at AA, the world's biggest airline by fleet size and part of the One World alliance with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. In addition to the management of a four-strong team in the UK and PROs within the sales and marketing function across Scandinavia, Hedges' role now covers agency management across Europe (the firm retains small specialist agencies in France and Germany).

In the UK, AA uses Henry's House, a reflection of the 'small agency is best' ethos of Hedges' predecessor, Al Comeaux. Hedges supports Comeaux' view. In a position statement that should bring a smile to those at Henry's House - but may disappoint Hedges' wife, a Countrywide Porter Novelli account handler - he says: 'We use agency support in certain areas. All our agencies are small or medium-sized. You get better value for money from them because the big agencies with the big names take big fees.'

Hedges joined AA from the Cranfield School of Management, where he had been head of PR for less than six months. He moved to Cranfield after being made redundant at Britannia and feeling in something of a rut. The AA job came up just three months after joining Cranfield. So did he agonise for ages about whether to apply? Not a bit of it.

His enthusiasm for airlines and what makes them tick meant he just had to go for the job. The long commute to south-west London from Bedford is, it seems, easily offset by the fact that he gets to watch jumbos take-off all day.

If there is one aspect of Hedges' character that should help in the post - apart from his love of the metal birds - it is his ability to target ideas at different audiences.

For an airline PRO, the balance between addressing the consumer and addressing the trade is key.

Austravel marketing director Andrew Chapman, who worked with Hedges during the Britannia years, says he gets the balance just right: 'The consumers buy the products but the trade is expected to sell it for you. Understanding that they need to be treated differently is crucial, and Richard does.'



HIGHLIGHTS

1981: Account executive, Nicholas Mendes Associates

1986: Public relations officer, Britannia Airways

2000: Head of PR, Cranfield School of Management

2000: European corporate comms manager, American Airlines.



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