Willie Walsh stepped down from his position as CEO of IAG in September 2020, retiring after a remarkable 41 year career in aviation.
He has been a rare airline leader, successfully making the switch from Aer Lingus pilot, to leading that airline and subsequently both British Airways and IAG.
One or two of Walsh’s achievements would look impressive on a CV but his list is much more extensive, including turning one notable public relations disaster into a success.
At Aer Lingus he succeeded in turning around the airline at a time when it was close to bankruptcy. Critically, he recognised the growing ascendancy of his neighbouring competitor, Ryanair, and the urgency of mounting an effective response if Aer Lingus was to survive. The airline was reinvented as a low cost carrier.
Moving to the helm of British Airways, he took the lessons learned at Aer Lingus and began to address the airline’s cost base to permit it to tackle a tidal wave of growing low cost competition from easyJet and Ryanair on short haul routes out of London. The market was changing around BA, becoming increasingly dominated by price. The glory days of large numbers of high paying business customers were on their way out. By improving its efficiency, BA’s domestic and European network, historically loss making and regarded primarily as a necessity to feed customers onto long haul flights, was turned to profit.
Acquisition of bmi
Another key step instigated by Walsh whilst at BA was the acquisition of bmi (formerly British Midland) from Lufthansa. This airline had struggled financially prior to being bought by Lufthansa but the German airline failed to take advantage of bmi’s strong slot position at Heathrow.