BA supremo Willie Walsh finally jets off after a turbulent 15 years in the pilot’s seat
Willie Walsh is stepping down as chief executive of British Airways owner International Airlines Group after 15 years at the top.
The 58-year-old Irishman, who started his long career in aviation as a trainee pilot at Aer Lingus, will relinquish control at the end of March and leave the company in June.
Arch-rival and compatriot Michael O’Leary, the pugnacious boss of Ryanair, said it was a huge loss to the industry and proof that you’ll never beat the Irish.
Willie Walsh is stepping down as chief executive of British Airways owner International Airlines Group at the end of March
But there was silence from Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson who has had a long-running feud with Walsh.
And many of BA’s passengers caught up in pilot strikes, IT meltdowns and a cyber attack may be happy to see the back of him.
Walsh said last November that he would retire before his 60th birthday, but has decided to call it a day a little earlier than expected.
He will be replaced by 51-year-old Spaniard Luis Gallego, who has been credited with turning around Iberia, another part of the IAG stable.
Walsh gained a reputation as a tough union negotiator while a pilot. This hard-line approach continued when he switched to the other side of the negotiating table and repeatedly took on the unions, first as boss of Aer Lingus and later at the helm of BA.
While this trait may well have caused him to go up in O’Leary’s estimations, BA passengers and shareholders have paid the price.
A dispute with pilots union Balpa over pay and perks culminated in the first pilot strikes in BA’s history last September, and the cancellation of 2,300 flights.
It also fuelled a £185million fall in its third quarter profits. While the public might not have had much sympathy with captains paid £167,000 a year, BA came under fire for the breakdown in relations with its own pilots.
What is beyond doubt is Walsh’s reputation as a ruthless and savvy businessman.
The Irishmen spearheaded the merger of BA with Spanish airline Iberia in 2011 to create International Airlines Group, or IAG.
Although long-term investors in IAG have endured a rollercoaster ride, shares have soared by more than half to 634p since September last year.
But speak to people who have flown with BA for many years and they will say this has come at a cost, with the perks and service that once distinguished it from its budget rivals pared back.
As O’Leary heaped effusive praise on Walsh, however, Branson remained notably silent.
Walsh and his 69-year-old rival have frequently sniped at each other in a bitter dispute stretching back almost 15 years.
The bearded tycoon bet Walsh £1million in 2012 that Virgin Atlantic would still exist in five years’ time.
Walsh, not being as quite as fabulously rich as Branson, offered to change the wager to a knee in the groin.
As Walsh flies off into the sunset, it looks like the bet will never be settled.