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.

(Image credit: © 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP)

“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.

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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”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.