Willie Walsh appointed head of the International Air Transport Association

Prospect of a vaccine means Irish man could become public face of industry’s recovery

Willie Walsh has been appointed the next head of the International Air Transport Association, a position that will involve the former British Airways chief executive leading the industry's response to the pandemic.

The Irish man was confirmed as the next director-general at Iata’s annual meeting on Tuesday, and is expected take over from Alexandre de Juniac in April next year, the group said.

Iata has led the global airline industry’s reaction to coronavirus, including lobbying governments for financial support in the early stages.

More recently it has called for the introduction of a co-ordinated global testing regime to lift the blanket quarantine bans that have stifled the industry.

Mr Walsh stepped down as chief executive of BA and Aer Lingus owner International Airlines Group after 15 years in September. He is also a former chief executive of Aer Lingus.

Nicknamed "slasher Walsh" for his tough stance in two decades of labour negotiations, the former pilot gained huge respect from within the industry for his modernisation drive at IAG, which became one of Europe's most profitable airline groups following the merger in 2011 of British Airways and Iberia that he masterminded.

Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, told the Financial Times when the former pilot left in September this year that "all his competitors" would be saying "thank God he is retiring – now please don't come back".

Relentless focus

But Mr Walsh’s relentless focus on costs led to clashes with customers, staff and politicians. A decision to impose major job cuts on British Airways this year came under particular scrutiny, with some MPs calling for the airline to be stripped of its valuable UK airport slots.

His successor, Luis Gallego, launched an overhaul of the top jobs at IAG weeks after Mr Walsh left the company, including installing a new boss at British Airways.

Mr Walsh takes the helm at Iata about a year after the rapid spread of Covid-19 sent the aviation industry into an unprecedented crisis.

At Iata’s online annual meeting on Tuesday, after he was confirmed in the role, Mr Walsh criticised countries for effectively barring people from travelling and said he aims to change attitudes among policymakers.

“We know they want to fly,” he said. “But they have been denied that freedom by a disjointed political response and certain governments which failed to adopt measures that would have allowed services to continue.”

Airlines around the world are on course to lose about $80 billion this year, but the prospect of a vaccine means the Irish man could become the public face of the industry’s recovery.

“The building blocks for an industry recovery are in place,” Mr de Juniac said.

Since leaving IAG, Mr Walsh has also been hired by Dublin-based travel technology group CarTrawler as its deputy chairman. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. Additional reporting: Bloomberg