After his early departure in late January from the helm of Aer Lingus – a carrier he turned around from state-owned basket case into a profitable low-cost contender – Willie Walsh has landed the top airline job across the Irish Sea as British Airways chief executive.

The announcement ends two pieces of intense media speculation. Firstly, the question of where Walsh himself would end up and secondly who would be the successor to BA chief Rod Eddington.

Eddington, who joined BA in 2000 after a spell at Ansett Australia and five years as managing director of Cathay Pacific, was planning to leave this year when his five-year contract ended. A year ago, Walsh's name was not even mentioned among the front-runners to replace him, but after resigning from Aer Lingus in December over the Irish government's reluctance to push ahead with his aggressive low-fares strategy, he came into the picture.

Both Walsh and Eddington readily concede that they share a very similar vision for the mainline airline response to the low-cost challenge, based firmly around simplifying the legacy business. Both know each other well through the oneworld alliance and hold mutual respect for what the other has achieved in transforming their respective businesses.

This is nevertheless a big step up for Walsh, in arriving at a global airline 10 times the size of Aer Lingus. "I thought he was more likely to come in as a number two to Rod over a longer period," says Andrew Lobbenberg, a London-based analyst at ABN-Amro.

Walsh's record at Aer Lingus is remarkable, and his single-minded approach to cutting costs goes down well with analysts. Michael Bell, co-leader of the global aviation practice at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, believes the appointment shows how far the competitive influence of low-cost carriers is spreading. "It is a sign of the times and we should not be surprised at this move. It can be seen as BA injecting itself with low-cost DNA."

Walsh, 43, joined Aer Lingus as a 17-year-old cadet pilot in 1979 and worked through the ranks to become a captain in 1990. He was appointed to lead Futura, an Aer Lingus charter arm in Spain, in 1998. Walsh returned to Dublin as chief operating officer of Aer Lingus in 2000 and became chief executive soon after 11 September.

Married with a nine-year-old daughter, Walsh has an MSc in management and business administration from Trinity College, Dublin.

He begins as chief executive designate at BA on 3 May and will work alongside Eddington in a handover period until the Australian retires at the end of September. Eddington, meanwhile, is to take an advisory role for the UK government as it looks at its long-term aviation policy.

Both men are former winners of the Executive Leadership category in this magazine's annual Airline Strategy Awards.


Source: Airline Business