The passing of aviation icons: FLIGHT, WW and the British Airways legacy

This week marks the end of something that started 111 years ago. Aviation was in its early infancy, but the opportunities it represented and the future, a glittering prize in the eyes of the early aviators, summoned up the need for communications.

The weekly aviation news magazine FLIGHT, once jam packed with everything you ever wanted to know about all things civil and military, landed every Thursday and was essential reading for anyone in the industry or simply interested.

Over the years it went from a newspaper format to a glossy “soft” magazine, and has finally closed out at a shadow of its former self. It looked more like thin pieces of lightly printed toilet paper, few pages and expensive.

Of course Flight Global is now one of the worlds biggest aviation websites, instant reporting, instant news, the way we’ve all come to expect it.

It’s not that FLIGHT has gone, frankly I’d not even seen a copy in years, its that it went now, quietly and with little fanfare. One more aviation icon buried in the sea of changes 2020 has foisted upon the industry. To be fair its demise was more related to the internet and the publishing revolution, but it seems that 2020 has taken away so much, this was ‘just one more thing’.

Willie Walsh and the 747 both finally head into retirement

Willie Walsh: the British Airways leagcy

Now talking of aviation icons, we have to mention that finally, an icon for shareholders, ruthless business managers and profit seekers, IAG Chairman Willy Walsh has finally retired.

He’d stayed on since March to keep the airline stable while it went through the current crisis. I suppose that depends on your idea of stability.

WW has not been an expert communicator. You can ask literally tens of thousands of British Airways staff that one and the answer won’t be polite. But WW didn’t ever care. People just didn’t matter to him, and they never have. His legacy is one of an airline group that took profits to new highs and then he watched it all crumble away in a few short months.

Walsh didn’t always get it right, he often lamented not having ordered more 773ER’s.

He, like all of those who ran BA or its later parent group, since the day it was founded, has hated loathed and made clear, that the best place for any competition was not at Heathrow, and as all of his predecessors did, Virgin Atlantic was the but of every jibe, every criticism, and every qualified bad mouthing he could get away with over the years.

On the cusp of his retirement, I am quite sure that nothing would have made him happier than see Virgin Atlantic finally go under. But it didn’t. Even more annoying was the fact it survived entirely through privately funded means, without a drop of Government money.

Now here we are with British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus and Level, all on their knees, and he pushes on with spending just over $1.3 billion US on buying Air Europa. Never mind the thousands of people who have been made redundant and the remainder strong armed into dubiously poor contracts for less of everything in return for even more of their time and effort.

WW

And what does WW do? Accept a huge bonus payment as he walks out of the door to go to pasture. He then seems to think its now time the Government bail out British Airways (which he though would have been a bad thing if they’d bailed out Virgin Atlantic), and IAG has been labelled with some worrying credit downgrades by the ratings agencies.

Moody’s downgraded IAG and British Airways to an oddly coincidental grade of BA2 – saying that it was overly reliant as an airline and a group on corporate travel, and the forecast for that, as we all know, is dire for a long time to come. It may in fact never recover to the levels it had in 2019.

Who was the architect of shifting BA towards business travellers and this very high reliance on business class travel in every aircraft? Of course it was WW. His whole strategy at BA and IAG was based on “Give me the fucking money”. He didn’t care who as long as they paid and they paid handsomely to fly in Business and First. But he also didn’t much care if they didn’t like the experience they’d paid so much for. If he had you wouldn’t have seen the years of complaints BA faced over its food, its surly staff and its awful business class lounges. Not until 2017/18 did it start to get the message it might have gone too far in pissing off its core market.

I don’t know anyone in the aviation industry who doesn’t know that Willie Walsh was desperate to see Virgin Atlantic fail. If it had it would have made Heathrow – already utterly dominated by IAG’s airlines to the tune of around 61% of slots, almost impossible to compete in. No real competition would have existed and IAG could do what it liked.

Still here and still flying despite WW’s best efforts.

You can even argue that his constant whining to the government that bailouts were inappropriate saw the end of FlyBe – the fact that Virgin Atlantic would have had a real chance of challenging BA’s domestic dominance with it was like a red rag to a bull. Guess which airline is given back the slots at Heathrow Flybe used? British Airways, who were gifted them decades ago by the government.

It didn’t however stop Walsh and IAG accepting some £1.5 billion in UK government furlough payments, while busily firing thousands of staff.

And now WW hasn’t seen his vastly smaller rival wiped out, he had the temerity to tell Richard Quest on CNN:

I have changed my views a little bit because as you know I’m strongly opposed to state aid, and I’ve always defined state aid or a bailout as something to help a company or in this case an airline that has failed or is failing. I think in this situation, many of the airlines that have received state aid were in good financial shape before this crisis and deserve to be helped.

So the super icon of shareholders left the building with his approximately US$1.2 million bonus (about £883,000), which upset them further, plus his salary of £3.2 million and a nice pension.

From one of the most powerful airline executives in Europe revered by shareholders, to one where they were disappointed wouldn’t – even as he fired thousands of staff – turn down the bonus, and then hypocritically changed his mind about the one thing that could possibly have kept many of them in a job.

And the final insult? Moody’s rated British Airways as expected to fail within 405 days (around the end of 2021) if it carried on as it is and things don’t dramatically improve within a few months.