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Getting a grip on the flying shop: Robert Ayling has risen swiftly to the top at British Airways. Michael Harrison reports

WHEN the City's aviation analysts gathered last week to hear about British Airways' second-quarter results, the man who led the briefing was not the chairman, Sir Colin Marshall, but Robert Ayling.

When BA snapped up its rival, Dan-Air, last November for pounds 1, the man who led the negotiations was not the then-chairman, Lord King, but Robert Ayling.

When BA unveiled its new staff uniform last January amid the granite and glass of Canary Wharf, the man who shared the platform with the compere, Selina Scott, was not a fashion guru but Robert Ayling.

Robert who? The boy who spent school holidays in his father's south London grocery shops taking home-delivery orders by telephone has come a very long way.

Eight years after leaving the Civil Service, Mr Ayling has risen from legal director to group managing director of one of the most powerful and profitable airlines in the world.

During that ascent he has never forgotten his father's first rule of commerce. 'Every Saturday he used to count up the takings so we knew in the family whether it had been a good week or a bad week. Knowing that is a very important bit of running a business.'

Mr Ayling is now responsible for a little more than the family shopping. BA's operations bring in more than pounds 100m a week. But he still counts the takings. Every Tuesday the passenger receipts from the previous week are delivered to his office. 'That way we get an immediate feel for how things are going and that's terribly important.'

This exercise is supplemented by a daily ritual. At 6.55 every morning on his way to Heathrow, Mr Ayling conducts a four-way telephone conversation with the controller coming off duty, the head of operations and his deputy. They discuss punctuality, passenger numbers, operational or labour relations problems and the forecast for the day.

The idea was suggested by a non- executive director, who told Mr Ayling that if he was to graduate from simply being a good company lawyer to being a thoroughbred airline man then he had to 'immerse himself in the operation'.

Mr Ayling may still talk like a lawyer, pausing before each reply and weighing his words with a slow, deliberate inflection, but, according to his own account, the immersion therapy has worked. 'I feel part of this industry, I feel at home in this industry and I feel I would miss it.'

But would it miss him, this tousle-haired 46-year-old who has risen almost without trace to the second most senior job in British aviation?

Richard Branson, admittedly not the most impartial of observers, says: 'I have never had to deal with anyone quite like him before and I hope I never have to again. He reminds me of a headmaster from a Dickensian boys' school and there is no way BA should have someone like that running it. If he wants to run BA successfully then he will have to learn to give and take. That's what business is all about.'

Mr Ayling smiles. 'I haven't met any Dickensian schoolmasters; perhaps Richard has. I have negotiated hundreds and hundreds of transactions in my professional life, in government and in private practice, and have never been accused of being inflexible when it was in the interests of the people I was working for.' Very lawyerly.

Mr Ayling's promotion was brought forward to February by the early retirement of Lord King in the wake of the Virgin dirty tricks affair. Since then he has had his work cut out.

'I have had to implement a major management reorganisation and a new way of managing,' he says. 'We did that by having a very overt programme of visible management. I must have seen nearly 5,000 people in the last three months. I now have a pretty good feeling for what the average BA employee is thinking and feeling.'

He aims to manage by consensus. 'I would like to create an environment where there is genuine communication of information, discussion of ideas and acceptance of decisions taken,' he says. 'I am not aiming to create a workers' co-operative - far from it - what I am aiming to create is a company where the management are responsive to an intelligent workforce.'

All very fine in theory. But isn't this the Robert Ayling who sent 18,000 ground crew out on strike and came within an ace of provoking the first official pilots' strike in BA's history in his attempts to slash costs at BA's short-haul European operation at Gatwick? 'What I wanted to do was make Gatwick a commercial success and show people by our actions that this was in everyone's interest, and I think that is now beginning to happen. A year ago I was lucky to get out of Gatwick alive. They were not happy. Now the atmosphere is different.'

Didn't this management philosophy also fall on stony ground when it came to dealing with Virgin? A pounds 610,000 libel settlement, an avalanche of bad press, company morale at rock-bottom and, at the last count, six writs is not a tally to boast of. 'The Virgin episode was a bad period for BA and only a fool would not learn from that,' he says.

'The airline business is very, very competitive. Our job is to ensure the company remains competitive but within the bounds of acceptability. We have spent a lot of time thinking about the concerns that were expressed arising out of the Virgin episode and what adjustments should be made within the company.'

Mr Ayling is responsible for Europe. When the attempted merger with KLM and Sabena collapsed BA abandoned thoughts of making a large acquisition and set about buying into or setting up small Eurpean airlines.

Mr Ayling envisages further European expansion, partly by investment, partly by direct operation.

He is cautious, however, about the pace at which Europe's open-skies policy will feed through into greater competition and consumer benefits. 'It is extremely easy to lose a lot of money in this business and we are not going to throw shareholders' money away in pursuit of political objectives,' he says.

Meanwhile, there is the shop to run. Mr Ayling does not see the airline diversifying or divesting. Provided it can meet its financial targets - including a further pounds 150m of cost savings this year - he expects BA to remain 'very much as it is at the moment' for the next 18 months.

Mr Ayling was not surprised to give up the life of a mandarin. What did surprise him was that the move took him into industry rather than back to private legal practice. 'It sounded like a challenge and it has been,' he says. 'Lawyers always achieve things through other people. To be able to achieve things for yourself is a rare opportunity and one I am currently enjoying a lot.'

(Photograph omitted)