IAG boss Willie Walsh: 'We'll be serving short-haul destinations like Belfast for a long, long time to come'
Willie Walsh talks to John Mulgrew about bringing new routes to the city, the potential scrapping of air passenger tax, and what he thinks of the new CSeries jets from Bombardier
Willie Walsh has been called many things in his lengthy career at the top of the airline business — and “unreasonable” is one of the milder observations.
The 54-year-old Dubliner, and chief executive of British Airways parent company IAG, spoke to the Belfast Telegraph about bringing new routes here, scrapping air passenger duty, and perhaps, throwing one of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers — Bombardier — a lifeline. British Airways is the overall sponsor for the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards 2016 — the fourth year in a row the airline has supported the awards. Mr Walsh attended the awards in 2013, marking the first year of his airline’s support.
Born in Dublin 1961, Willie said he enjoyed a “good childhood”, with three brothers and one sister.
He began his career as a trainee pilot with Aer Lingus, just after leaving school, in 1979.
And while he made an impact with several of those on his initial interview panel, another of his interviewers was less impressed.
More than 20 years later, and after pulling his own file after becoming the boss — he noted he had been referred to as a “cocky wee b******”.
And he said “nobody wanted the job” as Aer Lingus chief, shortly after the terror attacks in New York on September 11, 2001.
He spent 18 years as a pilot with the Irish flag carrier, before joining the management ranks, and becoming chief in 2002.
He later went on to head British Airways, before taking up the helm of parent company IAG in 2011.
Chatting about expansion plans, Mr Walsh said he could bring both new airlines and routes to Northern Ireland, under the overall IAG business, including Spain’s flag carrier Iberia.
“There could well be. We are particularly interested that the Government is talking about a route incentive scheme.
“If an airline can get some financial incentive to operate a new route, it makes it easier.
“It’s probably going to come with Iberia Express ... Iberia or Vueling, more so than British Airways. It could be an option. The problem with Belfast City Airport is the runway length, so we can’t use all of our aircraft.”
Speaking about Vueling, which pulled out of Belfast City Airport after less than a year, he said: “The model the Vueling has, they try a market, if the route doesn’t work, they try somewhere else. It doesn’t mean they don’t come back.”
He said that while BA’s return to Belfast in 2012 after an 11-year gap had been a success, “there’s been some growth in the market, but not as much as we would have hoped”.
But he poured cold water on speculation IAG would pull either Aer Lingus or BA from Belfast City Airport — which both operate flights to Heathrow — after the takeover last year.
“People challenge me about that, but if you look at BA and Iberia, both still fly between Madrid and London.
“It’s an efficiency issue, but it makes sense for us. The brands are very different, the customer proposition is different to the other. It’s also healthy to have a bit of internal competition.”
And asked about fresh competition from rival Ryanair, which is now back in Belfast, he said “there’s always concern when you are competing with Ryanair” which he says is “brutal”.
“But we compete with them a lot. Ryanair operates from Dublin in face-to-face competition with Aer Lingus, they fly from Barcelona where they compete with Vueling — we are well used to it. There’s never friendly competition with Ryanair, it’s brutal. But the customer looks for choice.”
Asked whether having two competing airports in Belfast is healthy, Mr Walsh said: “I think Belfast is one of the few places where there is competition.
“Whether, from an economic point of view, you can have an economy like Northern Ireland supporting two airports so close to one another, but the challenge is, which one do you give up?”
Speaking about Belfast generally, he said it was a city which had been “transformed” in the last few years. He continues to call for a scrapping of the “ridiculous” air passenger duty (APD) — a tax levied on flights in the UK.
“Just scrap it. I’m not one of these people who says reduce it. It distorts competition,” he said.
And he’s putting the onus on Chancellor George Osborne.
“From a tourism point of view, the UK spends hundreds of millions promoting the UK as a destination, and then you charge people to leave.”
And speaking about whether Bombardier’s new CSeries jets could be on the table for his multi-billion pound IAG, he said: “We will definitely look at it. And we have looked at it.
“We gave it serious consideration a couple of years ago; what went against it, was its time of entry into service.
“The CS300, which is the aircraft we would have looked at, was coming on stream too late.
“I’ve seen the aircraft, and I’ve flown the simulator personally. The CS100 could be an option for us at London City Airport.”
Asked why he believes Bombardier has struggled with its new CSeries planes, he said: “It’s very difficult for a new manufacturer — and they are new in this segment — to convince people to buy it; it’s a classic Catch-22.
“I think it’s well known they had financial issues, and the regional government (in Quebec) had to step in to support it.
“I think it’s a very brave decision for Bombardier to muscle in.”
While he’s had something of a love-hate relationship with Heathrow’s plans for a third runway, Mr Walsh only wants it to get the green light from Government “if the cost is right”. “The problem is political. When we get politics and business, they don’t mix, it’s oil and water.
“The politics of this, I still think is toxic ... if I have to wait until 2030, the world has moved on.
“We are not signing a blank cheque, and that’s why we didn’t support it.”
He also quashed fears that key regional routes into the airport, including Belfast, could be cut as airlines use valuable slots for more profitable, long-haul flights.
“We will continue to fly ... without question; the economics of long-haul are more attractive than short-haul.
“But if you look at it, to have the range of destinations we serve on the long-haul network, you have to have short-haul flying to support it.
“Without question, BA/Aer Lingus/IAG will be serving short-haul destinations, including Belfast, for a long, long time to come.”
Despite Belfast airports extending their network to spots as far afield as New York, he says Northern Ireland will always rely on London as an international hub.
“You will not get the scale of destinations served. You need a city the size of London to support that network,” he said.
“There will always be the additional reach that flying over a hub gives you. That’s why we recognise how important Heathrow is to the economy here.”
Mr Walsh also wasn’t shy about his strong dislike of fellow airline boss, Richard Branson, whom he had “no admiration” for.
“I don’t buy all the bulls*** about him,” he said.
But he says he admires staunch rival Michael O’Leary, despite the competition.
Speaking personally, he says he’s for a reformed EU, and that “it would be sad to see the UK leave”.
“Personally, I’ve been very clear ... personally, I’m pro the concept of the EU — having access to a wider market is a positive thing,” he said.
“My experience in dealing with Europe tells me reform is necessary.
“My view is you are better changing it from within ... I think the UK could be instrumental in changing the EU for the benefit of everyone.”
He said IAG was “always looking at opportunities”.
“We are not afraid if there is the right opportunity there.”
This time it's personal
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. I’ve received lots of valuable advice from many different sources but the thing that has influenced me more was the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw about the “reasonable man”.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will never reach your full potential unless you push yourself to the limit and risk getting it wrong. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. My best decision was the appointment of Luis Gallego as the chief executive of Iberia. He is a fantastic leader and has made a tremendous difference restructuring the airline (and his performance makes me look good!)
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I’ve been fortunate to have had two careers in one, so if I wasn’t going my current job, I would probably still be flying as a captain.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I love all sports and enjoy spending time on my boat, cruising on the River Thames.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Football and Liverpool, but also I love rugby, supporting Ireland and all of the provinces, but as a Dubliner I am biased towards Leinster.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Yes, I played football for years (and still play some five-a-side). I also play golf, badly, tennis, table tennis, and still run from time to time.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book.
A. I enjoy reading but don’t often get time. My Kindle is full of fiction mainly that I hope to read some time.
I don’t read many business books but the best I’ve ever read is ‘Getting to Yes’. I first read it when it was published 25 years ago and thought it was excellent.