No air rage but lots of plain-speaking as Willie Walsh lets fly
IAG chief takes aim at British government and Heathrow bosses
Willie Walsh: claimed trade with China has been harmed by the restrictive visa regime in Britain. Photograph: Alan Betson
If you want to make a point, then little can beat having a captive audience, particularly when they’re transport hacks locked inside an aircraft specially painted to look like a smiling giant panda for a nine-hour flight from Heathrow to Chengdu in China.
So Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG, was aiming for maximum publicity when he chose the airline’s inaugural flight to China’s fifth-biggest city to blast the British government for what he called its “unwelcoming and bureaucratic” visa regime.
Walsh, a former Aer Lingus pilot who went on to run the company before taking over at British Airways, didn’t hold back, claiming trade with China has been harmed by the restrictive visa regime. While the government “talks a good talk” about wanting to do business in China, there is a perception there that the UK “doesn’t want to see Chinese tourists or business”, he said.
For example, Chinese nationals must have visas even when entering the UK in transit, unlike those entering continental Europe. Visa costs in the UK are also significantly higher. Had it not been for the visa problem, British Airways would have launched its Chengdu route a year ago, according to Walsh.
The IAG chief executive also launched a scathing attack on the British prime minister, David Cameron, and his chancellor George Osborne, on the perennial issue of Britain’s airport capacity. Accusing them of lacking a vision for the future, Walsh said he did not hold out much hope for action from the government once the Airport Commission published its report later this year. “To me they [the government] respond to whatever’s topical rather than setting out a long-term plan and a long-term vision for growth in the UK”.
“If I was Osborne, I wouldn’t be popping the champagne corks at this stage,” Walsh said.
Politicians weren’t the only ones to be targeted by Walsh and he saved his most damning criticism for Colin Matthews, chief executive of Heathrow.
It’s not the first time Walsh – or others in the airline industry – have criticised the flagship airport but this time Walsh certainly didn’t hold back, accusing Heathrow of being “an abusive monopoly” and of “ripping off” passengers.
Heathrow’s high landing charges have long been a contentious issue between the airport and the airlines that use it. The airlines say they have little choice but to pass the costs on to customers, who are effectively forced to pay for the airport’s inefficiency.
Walsh has little doubt that Matthews, who has run their airport for the past five years, is responsible for that inefficiency, accusing him of using passengers as “cash cows”. Heathrow wants to increase its annual charges by 2 per cent above inflation for the next five years, a move that has still to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates the airline industry and which initially proposed that charges be capped at 1.3 per cent below inflation. British Airways and the other airlines are calling for a significant cut in real terms.
The CAA is due to deliver its decision next week and Walsh clearly fears they will give in to the airport’s demands. Warning them not to be “hoodwinked” by Heathrow, Walsh made it clear that British Airways will appeal any extra charges. Heathrow, for its part, has said it will be forced to abandon up to £1 billion of investment in the airport – in facilities such as improved baggage handling – if the decision goes against it.
British Airways is Heathrow’s biggest customer and Walsh’s mid-air intervention in the long-running row has certainly upped the stakes ahead of the regulator’s decision, as has his very personal attack on Matthews. Dismissing the Heathrow boss’s arguments for higher charges as “pathetic”, Walsh accused him of running a business that employs too many people who are paid too much.
Whichever way it goes, the CAA’s decision is hardly likely to improve relations between Heathrow and its largest customer. But relations between Walsh and the nation’s transport correspondents are presumably cordial, with the IAG boss having provided the hacks with such newsworthy in-flight entertainment on the way to Chengdu.
From landing fees to visas for Chinese visitors and the prime minister’s lack of vision, as well as a warning that a string of airlines will go bust this winter, Walsh certainly did his best to keep his captive audience’s attention.
Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com