12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
COMMENT: New Captain for British Airways
The announcement in the early part of last week that Rod Eddington is to step down as British Airways chief executive at the end of September to be replaced by Willie Walsh, the former chief executive of Aer Lingus, has been well received by airline staff, the industry and the travel trade. Trained in the UK as a pilot, the 43 year old Walsh has all the charm for which the Irish are noted, and an extremely good track record. He made captain in 1990 and used his spare time to gain an MSc in management and business administration from Trinity College, Dublin. He was appointed as CEO of Futura, Aer Lingus” charter airline in Spain in 1998. Willie returned to Dublin as chief operating officer of Aer Lingus in 2000. Walsh has been credited with turning Aer Lingus from a traditional small national flag-carrying airline into a model no frills style operator with a serious long haul division.
The jump from a carrier with 4,500 staff, with (by the end of this year) an all Airbus fleet of 34 ”planes, to one with 51,000 staff and 291 aircraft is colossal. Aer Lingus in its last financial year moved 6.6m passengers, BA 31m. You can keep the comparisons going. But both airlines are members of Oneworld. No change there.
Later last week British Airways entertained the city analysts at its Waterside headquarters (the press were banned; the airline, unlike some of its budget competitors reticent to use the media to attract passengers ” passengers of course the making of any airline). By all accounts the money people, that is the manipulators of other people”s money, were impressed with the news. All positive stuff.
And what of Eddington. He came in as a high flyer from Cathay who had picked a real duff one with Ansett (which failed shortly after he left) and clearly was more than happy to relocate to the UK where as a young colonial he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. That the man has charm and charisma there is no doubt. He has piloted the airline through some of the most desperate days any business could consider - 9/11, SARS, the budget airline explosion and the rise in fuel prices - but like Kevin Keegan (a football manager for those that don”t know) did he flag his going once too often? Eddington's learning curve was short but the majority of managers who were perceived to have failed under his predecessor Robert Ayling stayed and new blood at a senior level has been rare to arrive. The analogy with a soccer team is still there. New managers often bring their own backroom staff. Five years is a very short time in the airline world and with exciting new horizons looming up the Eddington motives must be called into question. Yes he is going to have an extended handover period but once the new man is in place will he want his precursor looking over his shoulder. Would you?
Willie Walsh takes over at the perfect time. The airline”s debt has been reduced to manageable levels and with the exception of Heathrow T5 he finds himself with no huge commitments that he can do nothing about (Eddington arrived with aircraft orders already placed and an undertaking to purchase City Flyer Express and British Regional). He still has battles to fight regarding savings on outsourcing and expensive perks. Many airlines use third party staff for check-in and other public contact duties within an airport terminal. They find it much cheaper. Likewise apron duties. The argument goes that workers employed by others are not part of ”the team”, a word now much in favour. ”Real” BA staff, so they say, are keener and more knowledgeable.
ABTN has pontificated on Heathrow T5 before. With Walsh in command BA has a golden opportunity not only to increase efficiency, but also to use the new terminal as a marketing tool. In spite of all its deficiencies Heathrow has remained the world”s number one international airport. T5 can only improve matters. The introduction of very long-range aircraft will eliminate its requirement in some ways (the Middle East airlines can now go to North America non-stop ” but will there be the business for the routes?). The European network will benefit with easy connections to long haul and visa versa. We might even see a possible return to dormant pastures. On the aircraft front the 767 fleet will need replacing over the coming years and likewise the more elderly 747s. Vital decisions will be required to be made regarding airframe suppliers and funding.
One suspects that the Eddington era will be fondly looked back upon as one of progress and of steadying a slightly rocky ship. The summer shambles, two years running, did British Airways no good. The image of the airline improved but he in the main failed to eliminate the baggage of history within the airline itself.
Walsh now has to convince the staff that he is the right man (which should not be difficult ” he is nearly one of them), the media (again he has all the attributes but a more pro-active attitude will help seat sales), and the city (perhaps overrated in terms of its value ” after all the bottom line is not the words said to the investors” representatives but what the airline delivers in terms of actual profits).
Will ”The World”s Favourite Airline” take back the title it created under the imaginative leadership of Lord King. BA News headline offers a watered down version this week ”world”s best airline”. With Willie Walsh in command the flight deck is cleared for take-off. There is unlikely to be a ”wheels up”. It”s all systems go!