November 6th, 2009
02:29 PM GMT
LONDON, England - I always look forward to interviewing British Airways CEO Willie Walsh. No matter how much doom and gloom there is in the industry, the Irishman has a smile on his face and also has a positive spin on his airline going forward.
That was the case again early Friday when he did his normal round of recorded interviews in London as BA announced their latest results.
Yes, BA recorded a record pre-tax half-year loss for the six months to September, yes the airline faces possible strikes by cabin crew, yes oil prices are going up again, yes premium traffic is being hit hard, yes airlines make little money from the majority of those passengers that sit in the back half of the airplane - but Walsh still appears more optimistic then the heads of the other European legacy carriers.
Why, you ask. And with good reason: BA is in the midst of drastic cutbacks. It's mothballing planes (if only temporarily), cutting thousands of jobs (3,000 more announced Friday), delaying the delivery of new airplanes, wringing out hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.
Walsh says these aren’t just steps to get through the recession. He says short haul premium traffic has changed, for good, and BA needs to make "structural changes" to reflect that reality. If you have ever flown from London to Edinburgh or Paris to Amsterdam and wondered why people paid triple for the privilege of sitting in a seat no bigger than those in the rest of the single-aisle plane, companies have asked the same thing and decided to cut back. BA says that will not return.
What seems to be on the rebound is premium traffic yields (average price per passenger per mile). That is where BA makes its money. Of course its just recorded a record loss, so there is a long way to go, but if companies are willing to pay just a little more for a flexible business ticket, then as Walsh says, BA may be "bottoming out."
This, of course, could all go horribly wrong if cabin crew go on strike just before Christmas, which is entirely possible. Walsh didn’t smile when he reminded me that the union has not yet even balloted for a strike, much less announced a date to walk out (all because, believe it or not, of BA’s plan to cut the number of cabin crew on long-haul flights from 15 to 14).
Walsh has a challenging time ahead.
BA is known for its decent service, great Web site and friendly enough staff, but has to compete with the incredibly well managed and well financed Middle East airlines that are ever expanding.
On the other side, Ryanair is driving hard towards its goal of being Europe’s biggest airline that charges peanuts for flights, many of which compete on BA routes.
Meanwhile, Walsh has to battle unions, cut more costs, and deal with a huge pension deficit while trying to grow the business through its never-ending attempt to merge with Iberia and by increasing an alliance with American Airlines.
Can he keep smiling?
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