17 JANUARY 2011

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Article from BTNews 17 JANUARY 2011

COMMENT: Bring on Keith Williams British Airways

Last week’s forceful and most interesting ON THE SOAPBOX by the new International Airlines Group (IAG) Chairman Antonio Vazquez deservedly started the year off and is itself worthy of COMMENT.

AERBT would admit not to being in favour of the link-up between British Airways and Iberia in the past.  It seemed fraught with differences in philosophy and attitudes.  But that is behind us now and over a decade of working together in oneworld has shown that the two carriers can assimilate for the common good.  Fortunately English is the language of the airlines which is something that the Spanish will have to come to terms with.  Using English operationally has clearly benefited Lufthansa.  The International Airlines Group looks like it will work from a financial point of view.  It now has to function in the complexity of an actual working airline environment.

Willie Walsh officially took over as British Airways Chief Executive Officer in October 2005 from Sir Rod Eddington, who had steadied a rocky ship.  He arrived from Aer Lingus, then a member of oneworld, with a reputation as a cost cutting CEO, a pilot by training and with a masters business degree from Trinity College Dublin.

His tenure has been far from uneventful dealing with an aggressive and largely unhelpful cabin staff trade union unwilling to acknowledge that airlines had moved on in the 21st century and were no longer the government backed show piece goliaths of old.  He has had to deal with record losses, what turned out to be a short term crisis with the move into Terminal 5, fuel at record cost levels and volcanic ash and snow problems.

It has been argued that BA has taken its eye off the commercial front but the airline continues to run smoothly and the spirit of the majority of staff was seen in the way that it continued to fly during the worst of the Unite Union strikes.

The argument that BA would abandon South America and hand that important market over to Iberia seems to have been repudiated with Rio as a new non-stop route and Buenos Aires about to come on-line.  Walsh quite rightly emphasised that for Heathrow to remain as the world’s number one international airport, and all the benefits that brings, a much more enlightened attitude is required by government.  His new role as Chief Executive of IAG is clearly a challenge but one to which he is eminently suited.

Taking charge of British Airways as CEO is Keith Williams (54), the airline’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the last five year years.  He also sits on the Management Board of what is now the airline’s parent company, IAG, and is a Non-executive Board Member of Transport for London.

As CFO of British Airways over the previous five years he has played a leading part in the airline’s achievement of a record operating margin in 2007, before steering it through the worst recession in its history and masterminding a solution to its long-standing pensions deficit. 

Keith joined BA in 1998 as Group Treasurer and Head of Tax and was heavily involved in restructuring the airline’s finances after the aviation slump that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  Previously he had seen service with such luminaries as Reckitt and Colman, Apple Europe and Arthur Andersen.  He is a graduate of Liverpool University, where he obtained a first class honours degree in history and archaeology.

Last week in AERBT Antonio Vazquez spoke of the future of IAG and British Airways in which Keith Williams will play a vital role.  Most of the airline’s inherent problems are either solved or on their way to being solved.  Next year the A380 arrives and soon after that the 787.  The all new 777s are joining the fleet and the route structure looks solid and well founded.  The airline is an Olympic partner for 2012.  The quality of the product must be upheld in the face of very serious competition.  One could argue that BA should shout its case a little more.  And any integration with Iberia needs to be seamless. 

After 12 years with BA Keith Williams is now what used to be described as a “proper airline man”.  The experience is there.  He has seen the good times and the bad times.  He has the attributes and deserves success as the leader in charge.  There is every indication is that it will happen.

Malcolm Ginsberg
Editor in Chief

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