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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 March, 2005, 17:32 GMT
Pilot who rescued Aer Lingus heads BA
Profile
By Clare Matheson
BBC News business reporter

Ex-Aer Lingus chief Willie Walsh
Mr Walsh began work at Aer Lingus as a pilot
Forthright and uncompromisingly direct is how many describe BA's chief executive designate Willie Walsh.

The former Aer Lingus chief appeared to come from nowhere when he took over at the Irish airline in 2001.

He joined the company in 1979 as a cadet pilot and gradually worked his way up through the ranks into flight operations management in the mid-1990s.

In 1998, he became chief executive of Futura - the company's chartered airline in Spain - then was named chief finance officer in 2000.

A reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations
Willie Walsh

Mr Walsh became chief executive of Aer Lingus in the wake of the September 11 attacks which squeezed airline profits.

But instead of Aer Lingus following Sabena and Swissair into oblivion, Mr Walsh achieved a huge turnaround at the carrier.

Cheap and cheerful

Making no secret of his desire to emulate successful no-frills carriers, he set about slashing costs by 30% and axing more than a third of its staff.

Mr Walsh even flogged the cream of the group's corporate art collection, raising 354,000 as part of his promise to do everything to save the Irish flag carrier.

Bertie Ahern
Shake-up plans for Aer Lingus led to a row with Mr Ahern

The turnaround meant that the company posted an operating profit of 63.8m euros ($85m; 44m) for 2002, rebounding from a loss of 35.3m euros a year earlier. For 2003, the group unveiled operating profits of 83m euros.

Perhaps his claim that "a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations" - made in a staff publication when he represented pilots during their row with managers - was a hint of the man to come, as his tough decisions at the top made him few friends.

Fights

Thousands of job losses led to a stand-off with unions in 2002, culminating in a three-day lockout.

His decision to cut costs by axing short-haul cargo routes led to a row with the Exporters' Association.

Some commentators have accused him of eroding Aer Lingus's brand value by taking the no-frills route.

And, his most recent proposals for the airline saw him head into a political spat with the Irish government.

Some people have been critical that [Aer Lingus] focused too much on profitability. We make no apologies for focusing on profit
Willie Walsh
Last year, he made it known that he wanted to explore the possibility of a management buy-out.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern attacked him from the floor of the Dail, the Irish parliament, for trying to cash in on the airline.

He left the airline in January, four months ahead of schedule, amid reports that he was in talks about setting up a rival airline.

Frankly speaking

His reputation as a forthright, outspoken man has remained intact.

He refused to apologise for swingeing cuts at the airline saying: "Some people have been critical that [Aer Lingus] focused too much on profitability. We make no apologies for focusing on profit."

Meanwhile, in 2003 he admitted that Aer Lingus had been "ripping off customers for years" with high fares.

In his private life, Mr Walsh is thought to have kept to his own "no-frills" beliefs - continuing to drive his 1991 Honda to work.

And when he became the airline's chief he also chose not to take on a secretary, instead writing all his own letters and answering his own phone.


SEE ALSO:
Aer Lingus ex-chief to head up BA
08 Mar 05 |  Business
Executive trio leave Aer Lingus
12 Jan 05 |  Business
Aer Lingus unveils cost cut plans
19 Aug 04 |  Business
Aer Lingus 'planning to cut jobs'
27 Jul 04 |  Business
Aer Lingus launch Liverpool route
03 Jul 04 |  Merseyside


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