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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Foreign Exchange Dealer - OTE £40,000+

£16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Foreign Exchange Dealer is re...

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea