Total names new bosses as Russia probes CEO plane crash

  • AFP, Paris
  • Updated: Oct 22, 2014 18:22 IST

French oil giant Total on Wednesday named new bosses to lead one of the world's biggest energy companies after its chief executive was killed in Moscow when his private jet hit a snowplough on takeoff.

Executives decided at an emergency meeting to bring back Thierry Desmarest -- who was both chairman and chief executive at Total from 1995 to 2007 -- as chairman of the group after Christophe de Margerie's death.

Desmarest, who had once prepared De Margerie for the top job, now appears to have been asked to do the same for newly named chief executive Philippe Pouyanne, who currently heads the refining and chemicals division.

He will stay on until the end of 2015 when Pouyanne is expected to be ready to assume the chairman's job as well, ensuring a smooth transition after the sudden death of 63-year-old De Margerie, known by the affectionate nickname "Big Moustache".

Total's shares were down 0.51 percent in early afternoon trade, but had recovered from a low point hit before the new appointments were made. In Moscow, French investigators joined a local team to probe Monday's fatal late night accident, which Russian experts said was caused by criminal negligence on the part of senior airport officials.

Investigators began analysing the black boxes, which record the flight history and conversations in the cockpit. Questions rose over the safety of the Vnukovo airport used often by VIPs, as Russian media reported that an intern was in charge of directing the plane at the time of the crash shortly before midnight.

Three crew members on the executive jet were also killed. The snowplough driver, who was accused by investigators of having been drunk on the job, said he drove on to the runway after losing his bearings.

'Lost my bearings'
He said he could not understand how he drove into the path of the plane, according to a video broadcast Wednesday by Russia's Channel One state television.

Vladimir Martynenko, still wearing his airport uniform, told investigators: "When I lost my bearings, I myself didn't notice when I drove onto the runway -- that is, let's say I drove out."

Investigators had said the driver was drunk, but Martynenko speaks clearly and looks calm in footage, apparently shot on a cellphone. His lawyer told state television that Martynenko does not drink because of a heart condition but could have consumed a remedy that contained "a few drops" of alcohol.

The driver has been detained for 48 hours and a Moscow court was to rule later Wednesday whether he can be formally arrested. Izvestia newspaper quoted a source at Vnukovo airport as saying that a female intern who had qualified at the civil aviation college in the provincial city of Ulyanovsk was put in charge of the flight.

There has been no official confirmation from investigators or the airport. RIA Novosti state news agency quoted an air traffic controller as saying that such novices would always be supervised by a more experienced colleague.

Members of De Margerie's bereaved family are heading to Moscow to bring home his body to be buried in Normandy in northern France.

'Great friend of Russia'
De Margerie had been chief executive of Total since 2007 and spent his entire 40-year career at the group which employs 100,000 people and posted revenues of €189.5 billion in 2013.

A descendant of a family of diplomats and business leaders, De Margerie was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of the eponymous champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.

Married with three children and highly regarded within the oil industry, he was known for his jolly nature. Not one to shy from controversy, De Margerie was an outspoken critic of Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Even as relations between the West and Russia deteriorated to the worst since the Cold War, the French oil boss had criticised the sanctions, calling them "a dead-end" and urging "constructive dialogue" instead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described De Margerie as "a true friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth". The value of De Margerie's commitment to business with Russia was highlighted by local media.

"Now Moscow has lost an important informal channel of communications with the political and business elite of Europe," business daily Vedomosti said. Kommersant business daily quoted a source close to Total saying: "In recent times, Christophe de Margerie was practically the only one left in Total who called for developing business in Russia."

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