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Willie Walsh uses BA brand power to put a spoke in ‘Boris Island’ airport hub project

British Airways may not be the brand it was when the Saatchi brothers landed Manhattan at Heathrow nearly 30 year ago. But, as national flag carrier, it still packs a punch: it’s still the largest UK airline based on fleet size, number of international flights and international destinations.

What’s more, as a founder member of International Airlines Group, BA has with Iberia created the world’s third largest airline service by revenue and the second largest service in Europe.

So when its chief steward (or perhaps that should be pilot), IAG chief executive Willie Walsh, says he doesn’t like something, the politicians have to listen whether they like it or not.

And right now, their ears will be ringing, because Wee Willie is beside himself with rage. Not only has he been denied ‘his’ precious third runway at Heathrow – more or less BA’s individual fiefdom and a world brand in its own right. But to add insult to injury, he has also been dragged into – as he sees it – the Government’s hare-brained scheme to build a mega-airport in the Thames Estuary.

Over his dead body. In a move reminiscent of Fool’s Mate in Chess, Walsh seems to have played a blinder on the politicians.

David Cameron, his Transport Secretary and Mayor of London Boris Johnson (who originally espoused the idea) have seemingly done little else over the past few days beyond eulogising the £50bn hub project at “Boris Island” and the transformative effect it will have on the British economy.

Er, no. Walsh crash-landed their airy delusions with a simple, crushing declaration. He’s not moving from Heathrow:

“I don’t think it can be financed. If I throw my weight behind it, people will expect me to be part of the solution financing it and I won’t. The only way you’d make it financially successful is say you’re going to build it and, as part of that, you’re going to close Heathrow. If you leave Heathrow open and you build this new airport, we’re going to stay at Heathrow.”

According to Walsh, these socio-economic engineering projects cause staggering disruption for precious little return, financial or otherwise. The new hub at Montreal didn’t work when they tried it; nor did the one at Kuala Lumpur.

If BA – which holds most of the Heathrow slots, not to mention exclusive rights to state-of-the art Terminal 5 – is not moving to Boris Island, none of its rivals will be either, for fear of losing what slots they have. Or so he reckons. And who is to call his bluff?

Manhattan may once have landed at Heathrow, but Heathrow will definitely not be landing at Thames Estuary Airport. Ah, the power of a global brand flexing its muscles.

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