Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

BA has a new pilot - and a flightpath through plenty of turbulence

The airline's lamentable punctuality record can be a blessing in disguise, too. According to the latest BA news, only one in five of its planes leaves the airline's principal base, Heathrow Terminal One, on time. Other BA bases perform better, but not by much - which can work to the advantage of cabin crew. When the last flight south from Manchester to London on Wednesday had yet to take off by the time it should have been touching down, at least one flight attendant knew he had earned the following day off. He was due to fly on Thursday to Bari in Italy, but the delay meant he was "out of hours" - unable to take the requisite rest between shifts.

The biggest winner in a turbulent summer of flight cancellations is a man who has been earning a fiver a minute for watching someone else work. That has been the privilege of Willie Walsh, who this morning finds himself at the helm of a company that once proclaimed itself "the world's favourite airline".

The successor to Sir Rod Eddington as BA's boss has both youth - he is 43 - and success on his side. He flew as a captain for Aer Lingus, and quickly rose to become its chief executive. The carrier faced a cataclysmic fall in earnings plus the pressure of Europe's biggest, meanest, no-frills airline - Ryanair - on its doorstep in Dublin. Walsh turned Aer Lingus into a high-performance, low-cost airline serving business travellers, holidaymakers and the Irish diaspora.

British Airways is a very different beast, carrying six times more passengers across a global network. It also has three weighty burdens. One of these looks, at face value, like a blessing: BA possesses the highest number of slots at the world's most desirable airport, Heathrow. But Eddington calls it a curse: "It's a zero-sum game. If you want more flights to New York, you've got to cancel some others. If Air France want to put more flights on to Belfast, they don't have to cancel flights to Newcastle; if they want to fly more from Paris to Montpellier they don't have to pull off Marseilles."

In fact, for an airline like BA, slot constriction at Heathrow is not quite a zero-sum game - because you can always buy someone else's slots.

One of Walsh's first moves will likely be to calculate how much cash Aer Lingus will demand to surrender some of its "grandfather" slots. The Irish airline's four flights each way, each day, between Heathrow and Shannon, and five pairs to and from Cork, could more profitably be exploited by an airline keen to expand money-making long-haul flights.

Two more concerns will be troubling Walsh. The first is the massive encumbrance of pensions: for each round-trip flown, BA has a pensions cost of £14. The corresponding figure for easyJet is 36p. Quite rightly, pension arrangements - many agreed when the airline was still Government-owned - can't be renegotiated. But union agreements can.

Some of the deals on pay and conditions at BA were signed before Walsh reached his teens. The new boy will do all he can to strip away costs. The catering dispute has brought yet another silver lining: it has shown that passengers will tolerate short-haul flights in Europe without food and drink. Expect a quick decision to scrap free catering, followed by lengthier discussions about how to harness the benefits that flow from this: everything from faster aircraft turnarounds to less cleaning. You might question whether such humdrum matters can justify pay at £5 a minute, but BA's board brought in Walsh to shake up the whole company. While he will seek the unions' cooperation in offloading the excess financial baggage, he will not shy away from confrontation. Not quite the miners' strike, but not a happy prospect.

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