Sunday 19 May 2019

This is Willie Walsh, your Captain...

Kim Bielenberg

By Kim Bielenberg

Willie Walsh, the Dubliner who runs British Airways, is renowned for not having taken a single holiday in his three years in the job. After quitting his post as boss of Aer Lingus, the airline which he helped to revive, he had three months off in 2005 before taking up the BA post. He described this rare experience as "torture'' and gave up on holidays.

"Misery to me would be lying on a sunbed somewhere,'' said the Drumcondra man. "That's misery.'' His customers, including the tens of thousands of passengers who attempted to pass through BA's spanking new Terminal 5 at Heathrow in recent days, would beg to differ.

Their idea of misery is queuing for hours in airport departure lounges, not knowing what will happen to them or their possessions. This nightmare turned into a reality yet again in recent days when Walsh's British Airways terminal opened and quickly ground to a standstill, with delayed flights and vast mounds of stranded baggage.

Walsh, a man who steered Aer Lingus away from near bankruptcy in the early years of this decade, has been cast in the British public's mind as the man who presided over one of the biggest disasters in corporate history. Of course it would be foolish to blame Walsh alone for the fiasco. There is a long tradition of Heathrow and British Airways fiascos, of which the Terminal 5 opening was just the latest.

An old joke playing on a BA ad campaign for Concorde had the slogan, 'Breakfast in London, Lunch in New York ... . Luggage in Brazil'. Blame for the Terminal 5 logjam is shared by BAA, the Spanish-owned airport company that owns Heathrow. BAA was responsible for the baggage system and staff security screening, which were beset by glitches. BA was responsible for check-in and baggage handling staff who seemed ill-prepared for the move to the new building.

He may be only partly responsible, but Walsh quickly became the lightning rod for decades of frustration suffered by the travelling public. He has become the butt of jokes and this week he even gave rise to a computer game, Terminal Panic, where players manoeuvre the hapless Walsh around a screen where he has to pick up bags. The English love nothing better than a epic cock-up, of course. And the Terminal 5 opening threatens to go into the annals alongside London's great white elephant, the Millennium Dome, and the jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner's ill-advised admission that his products were "total crap''.

Walsh's nosedive from grace was all the more spectacular after his hubristic pronouncements before the Terminal's opening that it would be "fantastic''. The Dubliner has been through turbulence before in his career, and if anyone is tough enough to withstand the flak coming from all directions it is him. In other respects, the Dubliner is thought by business analysts to have managed BA competently.

The second of four children born to a Dublin glazier, Walsh became an Aer Lingus cadet pilot aged just 17. In those days, he caught the bus to work in his uniform, and learnt to fly before he could drive a car. Transferring from the cockpit into management, he rose steadily through the ranks, taking over our national flag carrier, when it was a loss-maker, soon after 9/11. Following the lead of Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, Walsh rapidly cut costs and made thousands of staff redundant. Although he put many noses out of joint, Aer Lingus became a worthy competitor to Ryanair.

However, he has never been one to bask in the luxurious trappings of high office. Even when he was in charge at Aer Lingus, he continued to drive an ancient Honda saloon. He declined to employ a secretary and his family remained in their modest home in Donabate, Co Dublin.

When his predecessor quit, Walsh's great rival Michael O'Leary was asked whether Walsh would be a contender: "There's no f***ing way they'd ever have a Paddy running BA.'' How wrong he was. The question now is whether Walsh can take his career out of this nosedive, and steer it upwards again.

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