BA100: 18. Willie Walsh

100 Years Of British Airways: Willie Walsh, the combative and outspoken former CEO of British Airways and now CEO of International Airlines Group.

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Willie Walsh, Chief Executive International Airlines Group
Willie Walsh, Chief Executive International Airlines Group (Image Credit: International Airlines Group)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

Eyebrows were raised when Willie Walsh, a former pilot, trade union representative, and CEO of Aer Lingus, joined BA in 2005 to replace the emollient Rod Eddington as Chief Executive.

At the time, BA and Aer Lingus as airlines were worlds apart in both size and focus on long-haul premium traffic. However, it was evident there was a shopping list of legacy issues at BA to be resolved. Rod Eddington had overseen significant reform of BA, particularly post 11 September 2001, but was viewed by industry commentators as having avoided confrontation and dodged the most difficult tasks.

Ground staff working practices at London Heathrow had to be reformed ahead of the airline’s move to Terminal 5 in 2008. Inexplicably, ground staff at Terminals 1 and 4 each had different industrial agreements.

Immediately before Willie Walsh’s arrival, there had been wildcat industrial action by BA ground staff at Heathrow, the third consecutive summer of industrial relations tension at the airport. The Economist even speculated that BA’s move to Terminal 5 could be the aviation equivalent of the Wapping dispute of the 1980s when Rupert Murdoch took on the print unions.

The current dispute between BA and BALPA is not the first time there have been tensions between the two. Ahead of talks to resolve BA’s escalating pension deficit, BALPA told its members to save £25,000 for a strike. Having been left unresolved, the pension deficit had resulted in an empty aircraft order book to replace the fleet of Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

In both cases, Willie Walsh can claim credit for having resolved the issues behind closed doors without official industrial action.

However, there were still many volatile times. Willie Walsh stood at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning of the opening of Terminal 5 to greet the first passengers arriving from Hong Kong, seemingly unaware of the chaos that was about to ensue. There were immediate questions as to whether Willie should pay the price. Afterwards, Willie was candid in accepting that BA should not have allowed delays in the terminal’s construction to truncate testing before opening.

The restructuring of BA’s Heathrow cabin crew fleets the next year led to at protracted and, at times, unedifying, conflict.

Aside from Michael O’Leary, Willie is one of the most outspoken figures in the aviation industry. He has publicly criticised Heathrow airport many times (and has little time for airport operators generally), only very recently accusing them of conning the public as to the cost of a third runway.

I take comfort from the fact that John Holland-Kaye [CEO, Heathrow] is upset with the comments that I’ve made. I’ll quote Oscar Wilde that whenever people agree with me, I always think I’m wrong, but the fact that they’re disagreeing with me means I’m right.

Willie Walsh, 2018

Whilst Willie speaks highly of his industry peers at rival airlines, with criticism usually reserved for those forces such as Government shareholders that interfere, he has never hidden his disdain for Sir Richard Branson. He also has little time for press and industry commentary, describing it all as “noise”.

Willie Walsh left BA in early 2011 to take up the role of Chief Executive of its new parent company International Airlines Group. However, Willie left making it clear he thought his restructuring of BA was unfinished business.

Having led Aer Lingus immediately after the events of 11 September 2001 and BA during the 2008 financial crisis, Willie Walsh has always maintained that airlines must prepare themselves in the good times to withstand industry down turns.

IAG has a relentless focus on cost discipline and rational decision making that it will never let go of. Of course, customers do not assess airlines according to objective rational criteria. And the “rational” approach led to BA maintaining its space efficient 8 across Club World layout for longer than it should have.

Whilst in its 8 year history, IAG has not yet had to deal with a major industry crisis, Willie Walsh almost relishes the opportunity to prove that he is right.

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