So many people wanted to be there for Sir Rod Eddington’s farewell speech at the UK’s Aviation Club lunch at London’s Institute of Directors last Thursday that they had to squeeze in an extra place at each table. Someone joked that this was probably the first time the airline executives in attendance had experienced what it was like to sit in economy, but in beating the CBI, BBC and the rest to his valedictory address, the Aviation Club could be rightly proud of their coup.
Days from departing as British Airways chief executive - many would say saviour – Eddington was free from having to observe too many niceties. The Aussie is no Michael O’Leary, but he didn’t apply the diplomatic brakes in accusing the USA – “the land of the free ride” – of featherbedding its airlines and condemning the industry to never-ending structural sclerosis; calling the EU’s decision to turn a blind eye to state aid for ailing Alitalia “outrageous”, and predicting that today’s 200 to 300 major airlines – including dozens of carriers flying “vanity routes” – should and would consolidate to 20 to 30 groups.
He paid tribute to his low-cost rivals such as Ryanair and EasyJet – for whom BA has often been the target of aggressive marketing campaigns – for expanding the market and heralding the era of on-line ticket selling.
Eddington will be tough for Willie Walsh to follow. He is an intellectual with a popular touch and a free-market evangelist who still has a paternalistic view towards the welfare of his staff, emphasising that none of the swathe of redundancies that helped BA get its cost base right after 9/11 had been compulsory.
Four years ago, BA looked a basket case: a vastly overstaffed public service of an airline (without enough of the service to the public), with too many routes, and old-fashioned view of the internet and pricey fares. With none of the backdoor state support enjoyed by many of his North American and European competitors, Eddington has turned BA around and (despite his vow that the Ashes were only “on loan” to England) has been accepted as an honourary Brit. The British aviation establishment gathered on Pall Mall awarded Rod the god a long standing ovation: only one of England’s cricketing heroes would have been annointed more.
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