Willie Walsh interview: Gatwick or Heathrow? It’s just no contest, says IAG boss

The Chris Blackhurst Interview: The man who runs British Airways has a window on the comings and goings at our busiest airport – and believes that’s where we should be expanding

Before we sit in a meeting room, Willie Walsh wants to show me something. “Come in here,” he says, opening a door, “look at this.”

It’s Walsh’s office. But while that’s smart enough, as you might expect for the man who heads IAG or International Airlines Group, owner of British Airways, it’s the view that is sensational.

It takes in virtually the whole of Heathrow airport. There’s something arresting about standing there, in front of a large, plate-glass window, and gazing out over the buzzing terminals and runways.

Set on a tripod is a pair of binoculars. Does Willie, a hard man of aviation – he earned his reputation cutting costs and fighting the unions at Aer Lingus, and doing the same at BA – while away the hours watching the planes come and go?

He laughs. “They were a present from the staff at BA. I was always ringing up BA head office if I saw something going on, and they’d say, ‘How does he know everything? Then they realised I could see it out of my window, so they bought me the binoculars.” So, if Heathrow suddenly goes quiet… “I’m on the phone in a flash, inquiring what’s going on.”

I remind Walsh that we spoke when he was running BA, before it merged with Iberia to form IAG, and he was fed up at having to take the lead on Heathrow’s proposed third runway. “The case was already being made before I joined BA in 2005 but a lot of my time was spent arguing for a third runway.”

Read more: Take-off for controversial Heathrow expansion
British economy 'strangled by lack of flights'

He stopped campaigning when “the Conservatives said they were not going to support it. I said, ‘Fine, it’s your decision. I think it’s wrong, but I accept it.’ I’ve not done anything since.”

But the idea of Walsh, 52, ever accepting anything is hard to countenance. He looks like a natural bruiser. He’s short, wiry, with a razor haircut and speaks with an Irish accent.

It was going well, the third runway, he says, until politics intervened. “Look at the 2010 election results. David Cameron felt there were seats to be won in London if he came out against Heathrow expansion. London has 73 seats. After the election, the Tories had 28 in London, Labour 38 and the Lib Dems seven. The Tories had won seven from Labour and one from the Lib Dems, which was Zac Goldsmith in Richmond, so Cameron felt he’d taken the right decision.”

You can tell he’s annoyed by the way he has remembered the different numbers of seats. Now, he says, there is “not sufficient political will – it’s seen as too risky to support a third runway. Even Labour, which did back the idea when in government, has changed. “Ed Miliband was the only member of the Labour Cabinet against the third runway. Now he’s the leader”.

As for the Lib Dems, they’ve always opposed it. So, all three main parties are against the idea. He shrugs. “It’s highly unlikely we will see a third runway, Heathrow is always going to be a two-runway airport.”

But what about Sir Howard Davies, asked by the government to examine the options – hasn’t he included a new runway on his four-strong short-list (along with extending an existing runway at Heathrow, expanding Gatwick, and Boris island, a whole new airport on the Thames Estuary)? Might it not still happen?

We can, Walsh says, dismiss Boris Island for a start. “There’s no support for Boris island other than from Boris.” As for Sir Howard, it does not matter what he concludes, because “whatever he does will be handed over to politicians, none of whom are bound by his recommendations”.

What will be the outcome? “My view is that the third runway at Heathrow is not going to happen.” Gatwick will be seen as less politically sensitive and emerge the winner, regardless of what Sir Howard suggests.

In which case, fumes Walsh, “We will be making a mistake we will live to regret. We will look back 20 years from now and ask, ‘How did we allow ourselves to get into this position?’ We will lose out in terms of economic growth. A lot of airlines want to fly to Heathrow: not the UK but Heathrow. If they can’t fly to Heathrow they will go somewhere else like Paris or Amsterdam.”

What isn’t widely understood, he says, is the importance of “business connectivity. The network we have here at Heathrow is westward facing – as you would expect, given our traditional economic partner is the US. But as the economies in the east grow we will struggle to provide the same level of connectivity”.

We forget, too, that “Heathrow is a pretty good airport. It has improved enormously from when I joined BA in 2005. We’re always more critical because we experience it more than any other”.

Responsibility for not pushing ahead with a third runway, he believes, rests with the previous owners, BAA. “They were complacent. It was part of the legacy of having been an airport authority – they were good at telling people what to do but not doing it themselves. They didn’t focus enough on providing long-term quality and service. They were blind to what was happening in the industry, to the development of hub airports.”

Yes, but people in west London, in particular, didn’t want it. “I understand there was an issue of noisy aircraft but aircraft are getting quieter.”

Where, he says, the UK will lose out is that Heathrow will not be able to service the new, booming destinations in the developing markets of the Far East, Africa and Latin America. “We just won’t have the slots at Heathrow.”

Some 40 per cent of passengers flying through Heathrow are connecting with another flight. That business, he maintains, is under threat from other airports offering more connections. “Look at China. The growth of the Chinese tourist and Chinese business person is incredible. More and more Chinese want to fly, more and more of them want to connect with us, but we won’t be able to provide them with the flights they need.”

The claim there is plenty of spare airport capacity around the UK does not wash with him. “The UK economy, like it or not, is driven by the London economy, and London wants to be linked to Heathrow. And the reality is that the vast amount of foreigners coming to the UK want to come to London.”

It’s a pity, he says, we’re not more in love with Heathrow. He heads off and returns waving a piece of paper. It’s the international airport rankings, with Heathrow No 1 with 64.6 million passengers, ahead of Dubai, with 58.4 million. “We’re top of the rankings, but we’re like a football club that doesn’t invest in new players. You come top of the league one year, then you’re relegated the next.”

We’re not doing enough as a nation to look to the future, declares Walsh. “Because we’ve had very good infrastructure we’ve not invested in it. As London grows and the population increases it puts greater pressure on the infrastructure. Either, the growth stops and we’re limited by our infrastructure. Or, we do something to improve the infrastructure.”

What, we will just reach capacity and stop? “Yes, because we’re not investing and, when we want to, it takes too long to get building started.”

Take the third runway, he says. “It was proposed by the Labour government in 2009, opposed by the Tories in 2010, passed to Sir Howard in 2012; he will report in 2015 [after the election, such is the political sensitivity surrounding his report], and on we go.”

London is “a fantastic city, the UK is a fantastic country but we’ve ben complacent. We’ve been at the top of the table for so long that people have assumed we’ll always be there. Well, we won’t be. Look at the icons of aviation, all gone: Pan Am, TWA, Swissair. They disappeared because they didn’t change and adapt”.

We don’t help ourselves in another way, says Walsh. “The current system of entry visas is not fit for purpose. It’s the difference between someone welcoming you at the door or someone telling you to fuck off. People want to come here and spend their money. They don’t want to stay here; they want to go home. Our attitude is that they all want to stay. If we make it difficult for them they will go to Paris instead.”

It’s not insoluble. “The visa issue can be easily addressed.” Walsh is smiling. Politicians again. They’ve only got themselves to blame.

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