Within aviation circles, William M. "Willie" Walsh is known as a miracle worker. The Dublin native took the top job at Ireland's Aer Lingus in 2001, just a month after the events of September 11 sent the airline industry into a tailspin. Most assumed he would fail. But in less than three years, Walsh brought the state-owned carrier from the brink of collapse to profitability by cutting a third of its workforce and repositioning it as a low-cost carrier.
Now, Walsh is taking on a new challenge. On May 3, he was propelled into the big leagues, joining British Airways PLC (BAB ) as its new chief executive. Walsh won't fly solo until current CEO Roderick Eddington steps down in September. Until then, the 43-year-old Irishman will be learning the ropes and looking for ways to work some of his cost-cutting magic on Europe's largest airline. Eddington, who has already slashed costs, reduced debt, and increased passenger numbers at BA, is seen as a hard act to follow. But many observers believe Walsh's success at Aer Lingus makes him ideal for his new job. "BA needs someone to take it to the next level," says Stephen Furlong, an airline analyst at Davy Stockbrokers in Dublin. "Walsh's success will depend on whether he can transform BA into the lowest-cost global airline."
If anyone knows how to get rid of excess baggage, it's Walsh. He joined Aer Lingus in 1979 as a 17-year-old pilot trainee while getting a degree in business administration from Dublin's Trinity College. He rose through the ranks to captain before being recruited to don a business suit and turn around the airline's troubled Spanish charter operation, Futura -- which he did. He was named Aer Lingus' chief operating officer in 2000 and CEO a year later. Walsh quickly cut costs by 30% -- getting rid of business class on shorter routes, eliminating in-flight catering, even cutting back on cleaning. He sold off some of the airline's corporate art collection to keep it aloft, which added more than $500,000 to its coffers. Those who know Walsh say the married father of a nine-year-old daughter is equally cost-conscious when it comes to himself -- he kept driving his 1993 Honda Prelude even after becoming Aer Lingus' CEO.
Walsh's ax-wielding provoked the ire of Ireland's powerful unions but earned the respect of his colleagues and the Irish government. Bright, personable, and well-liked by those in the industry, Walsh is described as single-minded in going after what he wants and, more often than not, getting it. One notable exception was his battle to persuade the Irish government to allow outside investment in the airline. Last year, Walsh and two other senior executives resigned when Dublin refused to budge on the issue.
Now, as head of one of the world's biggest publicly traded airlines, finding new money isn't likely to be a problem. But first the former pilot needs to map out his flight plan. Analysts expect Walsh to focus first on bringing BA's short-haul network in Europe back to profitability. And with consolidation needed in the European airline industry, many analysts think Walsh is likely to increase BA's 9% stake in Spanish airline Iberia as a prelude to a full-scale merger. When this ambitious new CEO takes over the controls, BA should start flying a little higher.
By Kerry Capell