Simon Calder: Take off – with the class of 1961
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 26 October 2013
Astrology rarely features in this column; events on Planet Travel are too weird even for the most wayward alliance of stars to predict. This month alone, who would imagine that the Italian post office would take a stake in an airline that is losing £1,000 per minute? Or that the boss of Europe's biggest budget airline would take to Twitter without anyone at Ryanair asking, "Er, Michael, you do know how Twitter works, don't you?"
However, the present stellar alignment in aviation might intrigue you. The three airline bosses who power the majority of the annual Great British Take Off, each flying more than 60 million passengers a year, are now all the same age: 52. Yesterday Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG – which includes British Airways and Iberia of Spain – celebrated his 52nd birthday, making him the same age as his counterparts at easyJet and Ryanair: Carolyn McCall, who turned 52 last month, and Michael O'Leary, who attained the age in March.
Nineteen sixty-one was the Year of the Ox. After decades of ploughing through the business world, the class of '61 have reached the top. And, this month, they have had plenty to say.
If you missed the fascinating Desert Island Discs featuring easyJet's chief executive, Carolyn McCall, retrieve it from the ether at bit.ly/CMcCall. You will learn that the boss of Britain's biggest airline (by passenger numbers) is "Always watching the competition, it doesn't matter where it comes from".
I listened closely to Ms McCall's choice of music in case the songs subconsciously revealed plans for new routes. One choice, "God Only Knows", was unhelpful. But another, "Dancing In The Street", began with the telling line: "Tokyo, South America, Australia, France, Germany, UK, Africa". Two came true this week, with new links next summer from easyJet's main base, Gatwick, to Paris, Brest and Newcastle.
Island of dreams
Carolyn McCall is six months younger than Michael O'Leary. Yet when she joined easyJet from a publishing organisation, he described her as "Some old media luvvie".
Given the Ryanair chief executive's extraordinary encounter with social media this week, he can't claim the same description. After witnessing the Twitter talk, I wrote in The Independent that "Ryanair's first venture into the world of the live Q&A was a shambles from the start".
The following day, Mr O'Leary corrected me: "Obviously you didn't read it properly because we had nothing but laudatory feedback, with me interacting in an open and upfront manner with my customer base, and my customer base feeding me back the love." Decide for yourself at bit.ly/OhLeary.
The Italian job
The third member of the class of '61, Willie Walsh, was as articulate as he was angry when he addressed the Airport Operators' Association conference in London this week.
The first target of BA's and Iberia's boss was Westminster, as he denounced the national foot-dragging on airport capacity: "There will never be a third runway at Heathrow, because it is politically too difficult for the politicians we have today and the politicians we are likely to have in the future. The national interest gets lost on how individual politicians decide it will impact on their chances of getting elected."
Mr Walsh believes Sir Howard Davies' Airport Commission will do "a fantastic piece of work", but fears it will become "The classic 'Yes Minister' solution" – which, he explained, means "Let's form a commission, pretend we're doing something and in the meantime hope it goes away."
Next in his sights: the charges levied by the landlord at his main base, Heathrow airport: "They're entitled to be rewarded for doing something exceptional, but the idea you have to be excessively rewarded for doing your day job is wrong".
The IAG boss was dismissive about the ability of his big rivals, Air France and Lufthansa to give Gulf-based carriers a run for their money.
"I compete with Emirates, I compete with Etihad, I compete with Qatar and I compete profitably with them because I've had to. Whereas my colleagues in other parts of Europe like France and Germany operate in an environment where the Middle East carriers have restricted access. That's why they don't like them, because they want to keep them out." (Alexandre de Juniac, chairman and chief executive of Air France-KLM, is a shade younger at 51, while his counterpart at Lufthansa, Dr Christoph Franz, is 53.)
Willie Walsh reserved his most scathing criticism for the deal that saw Italy's post office deliver a lifeline for Alitalia – and the European Commission's apparent unwillingness to stop "A failing, effectively bankrupt, airline being bailed out so that it can continue to compete".
"It's blatant state aid, so we're opposed to it. Europe has got to stand up and implement the rules that exist. State aid has led to a fragmented industry where the unprofitable airlines with no prospect of becoming profitable continue to drag down airlines that are trying to do the right thing."
Alitalia has not made a profit since the start of the century. In its most recent financial results, the Italian airline revealed it lost £25 for every passenger it carried.
Never mind such unhelpful facts: the board of directors have expressed confidence that "The Company's financial situation will be promptly resolved". Which looks to me like one of the most unlikely predictions of the year.
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