Carolyn McCall: In the pilot's seat at easyJet

After nearly two years in charge, the budget airline's chief executive is used to dealing with headwinds, as Lucy Tobin discovers

It was a windy day at Southend Airport this week when easyJet's chief executive, Carolyn McCall, lined up for a photocall. Ahead of the budget airline's inaugural flight from its new Essex base to Barcelona, the nor'wester left airport staff holding on to their hi-vis jackets.

Andrew Tinkler, the chief executive of Stobart Group, which owns the new Southend base, was windswept. But Ms McCall, standing next to him, remained perfectly composed. Blowdried bob, buttoned-up suit, beaming for the gaggle of press and TV cameras – it takes more than a bit of Southend breeze to ruffle her composure.

Little surprise, really. After nearly two years in the cockpit at easyJet, she is practised at dealing with headwinds. Snow shutting airports, ash closing airspace, and the ebbs and flows of Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, easyJet's founder and still biggest shareholder, whose spat with her predecessor, Andy Harrison, contributed to his departure.

The entrepreneur's wranglings with easyJet's board have blown up again in recent months, when he led an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to reject a £10m executive pay deal.

But as we board the flight to Barcelona, Ms McCall tells me the orange airline's earnings upgrade this week is proof that "we've not been distracted" by Sir Stelios.

The carrier on Monday told the City to slash forecasts for the expected half-year loss, saying it expects its pre-tax dip into the red for the traditionally loss-making six months to April to be no more than £120m, down from a January forecast of £140m to £160m. EasyJet's shares flew up 7 per cent on the news – taking them up 25 per cent since the start of the year.

Ms McCall says that's the drip-through of her efforts since she joined the airline. Back then, easyJet was facing an operational crisis and was dogged by punctuality problems. Last year, however, the airline averaged a 79 per cent on-time performance.

"It's been a tremendous improvement," she says. "But it's not easy out there. The benign weather conditions have helped us, but two thirds of our first-half performance was due to improvements we've made – better customer service and on-time performance, website changes, launching our offering for business travellers – a lot of different things we organised a while ago are now coming together."

She even rates the food: the creamy chicken cup-a-soup in her hands is, Ms McCall says, "amazing," and points out easyJet's bacon butties are so popular passengers buy 800,000 a year.

Away from the food cart, the aviation industry may be suffering but it's also a Darwinian environment where the strong carriers gorge on the corpses of the weak. Spanair of Catalonia and Hungary's Malev were among the airlines that have collapsed so far this year.

"Within 12 hours of Spanair's collapse we had set up a new route from Madrid to Bilbao, a busy business route that's been hugely popular," Ms McCall said proudly. "Airlines going bust means we can take advantage of spaces left behind. It's happening everywhere.

"In the UK, bmi has been reducing capacity for a while and Thomas Cook is doing so next summer – that's definitely good news for us."

EasyJet might be enjoying healthier results – and it's also just paid out the £150m maiden dividend which Sir Stelios had been demanding for years – but Ms McCall knows her biggest shareholder still looms large.

"He's not going anywhere," she says. "He had a meeting with our vice chairman last week. It was constructive. We haven't got a problem with any of the issues that he's talking about – we just want them talked about privately."

Whether that wish is granted remains to be seen. Ms McCall does, however, play down the impact of Sir Stelios' antics at the airline.

Pooh-poohing reports that easyJet's non-executive directors saw his threatened vote against the £10m pay deal as a "motion of confidence", which many in the City believed raised the spectre of mass resignations, Ms McCall says that was never the case. For the first time raising her voice, she says: "It was never substantiated. There was never any talk of any resignations. Everyone is 100 per cent behind the board and our long-term strategy."

In successfully piloting easyJet, Ms McCall is also doing her bit for womankind. After former trade minister Lord Davies last year set a target of women representing one in four seats in the FTSE 100 boardrooms by 2015, she has been quietly getting on with her job.

"Doing well, or badly, has nothing to do with being a woman and I've never faced discrimination," she says. "Introducing a quota would be bad for Britain and for women. We do need more gender equality but you can't legislate for it, it's a cultural thing. I think, though, that Lord Davies' report was a good thing, it's helping progress."

That area of government policy might get a tick from Ms McCall, but another is approached with more caution. The row in Westminster about the possible expansion of Heathrow airport and Britain's aviation policy is rearing its head once more.

This week, a senior Conservative MP said a third runway was "back on the Government's agenda", with Kwasi Kwarteng, who sits on the Commons Transport Committee, claiming Britain was becoming a "laughing stock" after the Coalition ruled out another Heathrow runway.

There's speculation that George Osborne also believes a third runway should be re-examined.

Ms McCall isn't so sure. "We [in the aviation industry] all know capacity is a big issue, and at least the Government now acknowledges that," she says. "But it's not just about Heathrow. Gatwick, the world's busiest single-runway airport, and Luton both have room to expand. More than 80 per cent of passengers flying out of the UK fly point to point."

That statistic dulls the argument of BAA, owner of Heathrow, which claims its expansion is crucial because it's a hub, linking short-haul and domestic flights into an international network.

Whatever the final call on that issue, she isn't worrying about it. "It's not my debate, easyJet is my focus," she said.

As she speaks, Ms McCall is perched on a cabin crew member's jump seat, the bolshy type of chair that is ready to flip out its occupier at any moment. But she says she is in it for the long term.

"Don't I look like I'm enjoying myself?" she says. "I really like being here. I want to be here a long time."

There's no reason why she won't be. "Carolyn McCall's second full year in charge is shaping up nicely," was Charles Stanley's aviation man DouglasMcNeil's view this week. It's typical of the City, which rates her work.

Expect Ms McCall to pilot easyJet for a good few years to come, whatever storms the world – or the airline's own founder – throws at it.

Carolyn McCall

Born Bangalore

Age 50

Education BA in history from Kent University. MA in politics from London University.

Career Teacher at Holland Park School, London, 1982-4. Risk analyst at Costain Group, 1984-6. Joined The Guardian in 1986, appointed chief executive Guardian Media Group 2006-10. Top job at easyJet on 1 July 2010. Other posts: Non-executive director, Lloyds TSB, 2008-2009; non-executive director, Tesco, 2005-2008; non-executive director, New Look, 1999-2005. Awarded the OBE for services to women in business in June 2008. In April 2008, named Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year.

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