BA's 'God' begins to look as mortal as anyone else

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The Independent Online

When Rod Eddington took over as chief executive of British Airways in May 2000, it was seen as an event akin to divine intervention.

As a student in Brisbane, Mr Eddington's academic and sporting prowess was such that his nickname was "God". But his divinity is now being called into question.

The former Oxford University lecturer's accession to the top job at arguably one of Britain's most prestigious companies was seen by his contemporaries as a natural and almost predictable progression.

Initially, his stewardship during possibly the company's most difficult period, was reasonably well received, even by employees. This may have owed something to the botched attempts by his predecessor, Robert Ayling, to cut costs. They fostered universal loathing in the workforce and in 1997 provoked a 72-hour strike and flight chaos at Heathrow, Gatwick and Glasgow.

After the US terror attacks, which led to a slump in transatlantic traffic, Mr Eddington had to make drastic savings of £1bn. His "Future Shape and Size" strategy has prompted massive cuts in the workforce. It is expected that 13,000 jobs will have been lost by March next year.

The airline is supposed to achieve annual savings of £650m by then and a further £450m of cuts have been identified for March 2005.

Nearly 30 per cent of the company's £7.2bn annual operating costs are made up of wages. To Mr Eddington's credit, he succeeded in presiding over such an austere regime without provoking nearly the opprobrium prompted by Sir Robert.

Cutbacks have led to shortages of staff. Mike Street, director of service and operations, suggested the problem had been exacerbated by cabin crew's propensity for "throwing sickies" - an observation that served only to do further damage to management's reputation among employees.

But after last year's £135m profit, the airline is estimated to be heading for a loss of at least £160m.

The industrial action in 1997 cost the airline £125m. The company said it lost 20 per cent of its flights worldwide, while other carriers laid on more aircraft. BA cannot afford a "summer of discontent".

After the unfortunate timing of his latest innovation, Mr Eddington is beginning to look as mortal as the rest of us.