Business

BA boss Willie Walsh: ‘We could still rescue Bombardier CSeries'

IAG chief executive Willie Walsh at the PKF-FPM Leadership Talk in association with Ulster University Business School
Gary McDonald Business Editor

CADET pilot turned airline group chief Willie Walsh could still ride to the rescue of Bombardier's ambitious CSeries jet project.

Speaking to the Irish News yesterday after delivering the keynote address to the PKF-FPM Leadership Talk at Ulster University, the chief executive of BA and Aer Lingus owners IAG Group praised the Canadian manufacturer for "taking on" giants Boeing and Airbus with its CSeries jet, the wings of which are made in Belfast.

"It's going to be a massive challenge for them, but it's good to see more competition in aircraft manufacturing sector," Walsh said.

And despite the Bombardier CSeries programme having run into huge problems, with orders way below expectations, putting potentially thousands of jobs at risk across the group, Walsh revealed he hasn't ruled out IAG placing an order.

"We've looked seriously at the CSeries. In fact I visited the facility in Montreal 14 months ago to have a look at the aircraft and they let me fly the simulator, so I'm very familiar with what they're doing," the former Aer Lingus pilot said.

"The 300 Series is probably just on the small side for what we could use for the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick.

"But one of the options we still haven't rule out is the possibility of using the aircraft on the London City airport, where we have a fleet of 18 Embraer aircraft.

"It's something we could well do in the future. We would give it serious consideration."

He also confirmed: "We did look seriously at the CSeries for a low cost subsidiary Vuelling in Barcelona, but again there were two aspects against us - one was the timing issue and the other was just how many aircraft are they going to sell. We need to have spare aircraft and a certainty of supply."

The IAG boss - a committed cost-cutter and once irreverently referred to as 'Slasher Walsh' - said it was an ambitious move by Bombardier to try to move into the territory held by Boeing and Airbus, but added: "Its aircraft is hugely impressive and, from a technology point of view, I really liked it."

In a head-to-head interview with broadcaster Gerry Kelly in the fifth of PKF-FPM's Leadership Talks, Walsh - who has a relentless work ethic (he hasn't taken a holiday since 2003) - described his own management style as "brutally honest" and said he worked by the mantra that "a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations".

He told the 500-strong audience that one of his personal goals had been getting BA back to flying from Belfast to London after the flag carrier withdrew from the route in 2001, and when he left Aer Lingus for British Airways he also recalled his role in the "disastrous" launch of the T5 terminal.

"What a day that was. It was a mistake on a global scale. We let our customers down. We let everybody down. We could and should have done better. It's the only day I ever decided to go home early. But I never once considered resigning."

Walsh offered up praise the for achievements of Ryanair and its chief Michael O'Leary, but referring to his strained relationship with Virgin boss Richard Branson, he said: "I don't like him. I don't admire him. I don't buy his bullshit".

PKF-FPM managing director Feargal McCormack described Mr Walsh's approach to leadership, his personal drive and his professional ambition as "inspiring" and added: “His personal experience of the aviation industry at every level combined with an innate business acumen has created a modern day leader from whom we can learn a great deal.”

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