Former Aer Lingus chief to take pilot's seat at BA

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The Independent Online

The airline executive credited with rescuing the state-owned Irish carrier Aer Lingus from collapse was yesterday named as the new chief executive of British Airways, one of the toughest and most high-profile jobs in the industry.

The airline executive credited with rescuing the state-owned Irish carrier Aer Lingus from collapse was yesterday named as the new chief executive of British Airways, one of the toughest and most high-profile jobs in the industry.

Willie Walsh, 43, will take the helm at BA when Rod Eddington retires in September, but he will join as chief executive-designate in May on a salary of £600,000 to allow a handover period between the two men.

Mr Walsh, who began his career with Aer Lingus as a cadet pilot at the age of 17, had been one of the executives tipped as a possible candidate for the BA job. But the speed with which he was appointed took observers in London and Dublin by surprise.

The BA chairman, Martin Broughton, who led the search for a successor to Mr Eddington, said: "Following the tragedies of 9/11 many commentators expected Aer Lingus to follow airlines such as Swissair and Sabena into oblivion but Willie salvaged the Irish carrier and saved thousands of jobs."

Aer Lingus is expected to report profits of about €100m (£69m) for 2004 after Mr Walsh turned the airline around by cutting its route network and introducing lower fares and fewer frills on its short-haul European services - a process that resulted in 2,000 job cuts.

He quit the airline in January after falling out with the Irish government over its refusal to privatise Aer Lingus. Two senior colleagues - the finance director Brian Dunn and the chief operating officer Seamus Kearney - who quit at the same time as Mr Walsh are unlikely to join him at BA, Mr Broughton said.

The selection of Mr Walsh will come as a disappointment to the two internal candidates for the job - BA's commercial director Martin George and the finance director John Rishton, both of whom are highly rated. But Mr Broughton said it had always been his preferred option to find someone who had experience as a chief executive. The search was handled by the leading headhunter Anna Mann.

Mr Broughton said Mr Walsh was fully conscious that the challenge at BA would be quite different from that at Aer Lingus, where his task had been to drive down costs and prices so that the airline competed alongside budget airlines such as Ryanair.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, congratulated Mr Walsh on his appointment, saying: "Aer Lingus's loss is British Airways's gain and we wish Willie every success in the new job."

Asked about the legacy he would leave his successor, Mr Eddington said: "BA is a much more robust business than the one I joined in 2000. I take some satisfaction from the fact that we have survived the traumas of the last four years and are now recognised as being one of the world's best airlines, which was not always the case."

He said if there was one regret over his time at BA it was that he had been too busy reacting to 9/11, Sars, and economic downturn - a sequence of events that led to 13,000 job losses - to pursue growth opportunities. "I was forced to confront a major recession in the industry and manage the business accordingly."

Mr Eddington intends to spend a few months touring parts of the UK such as Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and the Wash before returning to his native Australia early next year.

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