Lord Marshall’s legacy


Colin Marshall, who has died aged 78, changed the way we travel. Should you be flying with British Airways this summer, the positive attitude with which you will be welcomed, and the good service you expect, are down to the man who was chief executive of BA during the airline’s golden age from 1983 to 1995.

In those dozen years, the man who was previously running Avis in the US turned BA from  “Bloody Awful” to “Bloody Awesome”. An object of national derision became a pace-setting, world-beating airline. Colin wanted to create an airline where instead of the traditional airline business model - "Get the product and the operation right, and profits will flow" - to "Put staff motivation and the customer and the heart of everything we do - aim to be the best, have faith in the customer and the profits will flow". At a stroke, he turned the long-held traditional airline business model on its head. 

For him the customer had to be at the heart of every decision that was made across the business. It had to be the overriding ethos. He knew also, that for it to succeed it had to be led from the top - from him. He had come from a service culture when at Avis in the US and couldn't understand why an airline didn't have the same ethos.

“Put the Customer First” became the internal strapline. The phrase was visible everywhere, from terminal restrooms to briefing rooms etc, but the second line of the Motto contained a sting in the tail - "if we don't, someone else will”. How even junior staff could make the difference, how big business could come from small details, challenging the staff apathy that had developed through the nationalised years.

He wanted staff to feel proud to work for BA - to instil in them that it could easily be the best airline in the world.  At the time, I was a customer service manager at Heathrow. He would often appear at the workplace not during office times when terminals weren’t necessarily busy, but around 6-7am at weekends when check-in staff etc were under the greatest pressure. Colin, unlike his predecessors, would come into the office and ask me to escort him down to the check in and baggage loading rest rooms so that he could have a chat and cuppa with the troops. This gave him the all-important respect and credibility from the front line troops. 

Colin paid forensic attention to detail and memory. He never forgot names, particularly front line staff. Years after he had retired, he remembered the names of front line staff such as check in agents and cabin crew.

He never wavered and inspired fierce loyalty from staff - something that continues to this day. During his time we won Airline of the Year Award five years on the trot. Those of us who were there for the ride will count his tenure as the best working years of our lives.