Yet the "macho man" tag stuck when cabin crew walked out this summer and Mr Ayling threatened to fire strikers and sue them for damages.
The threats raised the temperature of what turned into Britain's most tense industrial dispute this decade and, by the time it was resolved, cost BA pounds 125m and eroded its hard-won reputation as Europe's most reliable airline.
It was a rapid comedown for Mr Ayling, who replaced Sir Colin Marshall in the top post in 1996. Mr Ayling, who once described his upbringing as "aspiring middle class," quickly proved just as ambitious for BA - even though the airline had long been the world's most profitable.
He proposed the alliance with American Airlines that will, if it's approved in 1998, dominate transatlantic skies. He set a new pounds 1bn cost-cutting plan to cut 5,000 British jobs, angering employees who had already endured pounds 800m of cuts.
He drew more criticism when he jettisoned the royal pastiche on the tailfins of British Airways aircraft in favour of garish "world images".
Next year - as BA seeks to push through the American alliance and win back the loyalty of its employees - will determine whether the pain Mr Ayling put the airline through has been worth it.
"He's gone with a high-risk, high-reward strategy," says Guy Kekwick, a Goldman Sachs analyst. "I don't think the jury's come back yet."Reuse content