Willie Walsh: the colourful scamp who saved BA

Willie Walsh is standing down after 15 years in the cockpit at Britain’s flagship airline. Few will miss his combative approach, but the industry is losing one of its most colourful characters.

“With his cherubic face and five quid haircut”, there’s “something scampish” about Dublin-born Willie Walsh, 58, who this week announced his retirement from British Airways after 15 years in the cockpit. But talk to anyone who’s worked with him and they paint a different picture. “Combative” is one word which crops up often. “Obstinate” is another. 

Indeed, “there will be few tears shed at his departure”, says the FT. Although respected, Walsh’s “ruthless approach to cutting costs” (which earned him the nickname “Slasher” at Aer Lingus where he ditched the airline’s art collection along with 2,000 jobs), coupled with his “pugnacious management style”, won him few fans at the companies he oversaw. A renowned scourge of unions, “he showed little compunction in resorting to the courts to drive through the changes he deemed necessary to the long-term interests of the airlines he ran”.

The union man who switched sides

Still, Walsh delivered results. And how, says the Evening Standard. When the “ever-energetic” Irishman replaced Rod Eddington as the head of BA in 2005, the airline was in a jam – beset by a tricky global economy and “low-cost market entrants” who were eating the British flag-carrier’s lunch. Yet he went on to transform the airline’s fortunes by orchestrating “one of the landmark deals in the history of European commercial aviation”, says The Observer. Bringing together BA and Iberia to create the International Airline Group (they were later joined by Aer Lingus) was an inspired move. So too was Walsh’s drive to establish the dominant position at London’s Heathrow airport. He restored BA to profitability – last year it generated €2.3bn out of IAG’s total €3.23bn profits. And shareholders have trebled their money since he took the controls.  

Walsh is one of the longest-serving CEOs in the FTSE 100, says the Daily Mail. The second child of a Dublin glazier, he started out as a pilot with Aer Lingus, rising quickly to become a 737 captain. After forging a reputation as “a formidable negotiator for the pilots’ union”, the airline’s management “swiftly realised this bug-eyed streetfighter might be rather more useful to have on their side”. They were right. Walsh rose quickly to take the boss’s chair and returned Aer Lingus, then teetering on the brink of collapse following the 9/11 attacks, to health. 

The stuff of legends

Aviation is full of characters, says The Observer, but Walsh’s retirement means “the industry is losing one of its most colourful”. His protracted rivalry with Sir Richard Branson was the stuff of legends. When Branson bet Walsh £1m that the Virgin Atlantic brand would survive a tie-up with Delta, Walsh upped the ante – suggesting the stake should instead be “a knee in the groin”. Detractors claim the service at BA, which once claimed to be the world’s favourite airline, has suffered under his watch. More worryingly, several high-profile glitches – including a severe systems failure in 2017 – have raised questions about under-investment.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that this “pint-sized human jet engine” will be short of future job offers, says the Evening Standard. And even harder to imagine that he’ll eventually shut up. The week of Walsh’s departure announcement found him in typically combative form – denouncing the government rescue of rival Flybe as a “misuse of public funds”. 

Recommended

Elon Musk: the space oddity seeking world domination
People

Elon Musk: the space oddity seeking world domination

Elon Musk, the electric-car and space-travel pioneer who wants to move to Mars is now the world’s richest man. If he seems delusional, that’s all part…
16 Jan 2021
Great frauds in history: Philip Arnold’s big diamond hoax
Investment strategy

Great frauds in history: Philip Arnold’s big diamond hoax

Philip Arnold and his cousin John Slack lured investors into their mining company by claiming to have discovered large deposit of diamonds. There were…
13 Jan 2021
Adar Poonawalla: the vaccine prince who will save the world
People

Adar Poonawalla: the vaccine prince who will save the world

Adar Poonawalla, the chief of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has an ambitious plan to rescue us all from Covid-19. The future for…
11 Jan 2021
The faces of 2020
People

The faces of 2020

Great leaders thrive in the midst of turmoil and upheaval, as we have seen this year. Four of the great movers and shakers of 2020 stood out for us.
29 Dec 2020

Most Popular

Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?
Bitcoin

Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?

With bitcoin hitting new highs last week, and close to becoming a mainstream investment, is it really gold for the 21st century?
15 Jan 2021
Leasehold reforms promise the end of a nightmare for many homeowners
Property

Leasehold reforms promise the end of a nightmare for many homeowners

Horror stories about unscrupulous landlords profiting from a legal relic of the feudal era are about to get a happy ending, says Simon Wilson.
16 Jan 2021
The MoneyWeek Podcast: bitcoin special
Bitcoin

The MoneyWeek Podcast: bitcoin special

Merryn talks to bitcoin experts Dominic Frisby and Charlie Morris to get the lowdown on the cryptocurrency to find out why it's such a huge global phe…
15 Jan 2021