It was Andrew Sentance's 43rd birthday six days after the terrorist attacks on the US, and he had invited a few colleagues and their families round to his home in Essex. "I thought about postponing it," he said last week. "I wasn't sure if a party was really appropriate. But I talked about it to people and we agreed that it should go ahead."
Mr Sentance, who is married with children aged 12 and 10, had more reason than most to worry about such things. As the chief economist of British Airways, the impact of 11 September on him and the company was immense. There was the initial shock, the emergency meetings, the rapid reassessment of company strategy, and the realisation that the future for BA and the rest of the airline industry was very uncertain indeed.
The cost to BA so far has been a reduction in flying of 10 per cent, the withdrawal of 20 aircraft and the loss of 7,200 jobs, 13 per cent of the workforce. "It was clear there was going to be a significant fall-off for a while, particularly in the business market, which is absolutely critical for us," Mr Sentance said. Transatlantic bookings are down by 30 per cent. "Unless we took some very tough decisions, we were going to be in difficulty."
BA's emergency disaster response centre, OCIC (Operation Control Information Centre), was up and running within 10 minutes of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre, with alternative destinations needed for the flights that were en route to the US, where air space was closed. For company strategists such as Mr Sentance, the work really got going on the Wednesday morning, and has continued ever since. It has meant long hours, "and it has not been a normal working environment". Booking information is produced for analysis on a daily rather than weekly basis. "When there's a shock like this, there's much more demand to provide guidance. In an uncertain world, the economist is someone who is called upon to be brave, because they have to predict the future. But I don't feel under pressure to reassure. My role is to assimilate the evidence coming in and be as objective as possible. BA is not best served by me giving reassurance that is not well grounded."
Only the feeling that it's "business as normal", thinks Mr Sentance, will lead to the restoration of passenger numbers, and that is something beyond any airline's control. For now, BA must play it very tight. The collapse of Swissair last week was a further shock to the industry, even if the signs of trouble were present long before 11 September. BA's finances, according to its chief executive, Rod Eddington, remain on a sound footing.
Thinking ahead is what people find hardest. But that is what Mr Sentance is paid to do. His children have enjoyed the benefits of his job, with numerous flights on BA, and a trip to New York was on the agenda. "We'll still go," Mr Sentance said. It was people's children, he added, that helped to make his birthday party a success. "But the atmosphere was still a little subdued."Reuse content