William M. Walsh - CEO of IAG (International Airlines Group)..Taken: 15th December 2016 at IAG Madrid Office. Picture by: Stuart Bailey

LONDON – After a career spanning 40 years, International Airlines Group (IAG) CEO Willie Walsh will retire from his position at the Aer Lingus (EI) and Iberia (IB) owner’s annual meeting today, where shareholders will be asked to cough up billions of euros to help IAG through the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic.

Walsh will pass the role of CEO to Luis Gallego—a Spanish insider who turned around failing airline IB. Gallego will have to follow in Walsh’s footsteps by continuing to cut costs whilst dealing with damaged relations with unions and politicians. Additionally, he will continue the group’s fierce rivalry with low-cost-carriers easyJet (U2) and Ryanair (FR).

A Long Career

Walsh first joined the Irish flag carrier EI back in 1979 as a trainee at the age of 17. He admitted that this was not exactly part of his career plan but more a case of a confident young man taking an opportunity. Last year, Walsh admitted that when he became CEO of EI, he had a look at his own personnel file and found notes from his original interview at the airline where he was described as “cocky” by one member of the panel.

In his time spent as a Pilot, Walsh earned valuable negotiation experience on the other side of the table where he would later sit at following his rise to management. Walsh later became the CEO of EI subsidiary Futura (FH) in the late 90s. Following a quick progression up the ranks, Walsh became the CEO of the financially challenged EI in 2001 in the wake of 9/11.

AerLingus Airbus A330-200. Photo: Aer Lingus

No-nonsense Boss

Following his rise to the top, Walsh quickly earned a reputation as a no-nonsense cost-cutter making fleet reductions and re-orienting the airline towards a fewer frill service. He also cut the number of employees by 2,500. This move would later earn him the nickname “Slasher Walsh.”

Following an attempt to buy the company with other colleagues, Walsh left EI and was soon approached to replace Rod Eddington as CEO of British Airways (BA). Walsh’s path of reform continued at BA, which later brought the company into conflict with unions that often ended up in court.

Becoming IAG CEO

In 2011, following the merger between BA and IB, the seeds for IAG were sewn and Walsh was appointed to the role of CEO of the new group structure. Over the coming years, under Walsh’s lead, IAG continued to grow by adding other airlines such as Vueling (VY) and EI in 2015.

The latter deal was as a result of a decision by FR to off-load its stakes in EI after a failed attempt to buy its rival. IAG has since continued to expand and most recently announced a US$1.18bn (€1bn) deal to buy Spanish airline Air Europa (UX). Last February, IAG reported pre-tax profits of US$3.78bn (€3.2bn).

Not Without Incident

Despite Mr. Walsh’s long tenure at IAG, it can certainly be said that his time with the group has not been without incident. For example, last year the group had to handle the first strike by BA Pilots in the history of the airline as a result of a pay row.

Walsh faces one last challenge as Institutional Shareholder Services have called to reject his farewell US$1.16m (£883,000), although the vote on the airline group’s remuneration report is non-binding.

Whilst well-placed to retire, it is not yet clear if Mr. Walsh is intending to seek any new opportunities as other airlines will come calling for his experience and notoriously efficient cost-cutting.

Featured image: Willie Walsh. Photo: IAG