Kay Popken


Senior manager at Deutsche Lufthansa

DAAD Scholarship 1982–1984

Kay Popken DAAD

Kay Popken speaks many languages. He has not only learnt English and French, but also has a basic knowledge of Japanese and speaks fluent Mandarin as well, the official language in the People’s Republic of China. There are not many Europeans who can claim that. Skills like these enhance career prospects. In any event, that is the experience of Kay Popken, who was born in 1957 and has worked as a senior executive at Deutsche Lufthansa since 2005.

The long and extended travels right across China were at least as exciting as studying itself.
Kay Popken

Kay Popken's interest in China was triggered by a project on Maoism and contemporary Chinese politics that he worked on at high school. After leaving school, he studied business administration at the University of Bonn and applied successfully for a two-year DAAD scholarship in China. In 1982, he initially studied Chinese at the Central Foreign Languages Centre in Beijing, and in the second year, history and archaeology at the renowned Peking University.

"Initially, the country left me with the impression that it was very rural, extremely backward and poor," remembers Kay Popken. Only towards the end of the 1980s did he see a different China start to emerge. The country developed at a furious pace, the towns and cities changed and the era of mobilisation and motorisation began. "However, the coming environmental problems could also be recognised," comments Popken. He also likes to think back to his DAAD time, in particular, the long and extended travels right across the country. "These were at least just as exciting as studying itself," he says. He got to know interesting people from all around the world and has continued to keep in touch with some of them until today. "However, I had relatively little contact with locals, since that was strictly regulated and controlled."

His stay not only enabled him to gain intercultural understanding: "My frustration tolerance levels have become much better," says Popken retrospectively. Furthermore, his studies and his scholarship made career entry at Lufthansa easier. He was inducted into a special China Trainee Programme in 1989 and has remained loyal to Lufthansa in various positions ever since. When the company entered into a joint venture with Air China, Kay Popken became its human resources manager in 1997. In 2001, he returned to Frankfurt am Main to become the human resources manager for Lufthansa ground crew; in 2005, he assumed responsibility for the airline’s entire workforce. He was later appointed managing director for strategic cooperation with China, and he has now been programme director for international human resources management at the Lufthansa Group since 2015.