An extraordinary battle has broken out between two titans of the airline industry over who is to blame for the travel chaos blighting holidaymakers’ summer plans. While many are stuck in queues or waiting hours for their bags to arrive, former Heathrow chairman Sir Nigel Rudd and ex-BA boss Willie Walsh are this weekend engaged in a verbal punch-up.
City veteran Rudd launched a volley of criticism at Walsh, accusing him of an ‘obsession’ with slashing costs that left the airline a ‘laughing stock’. Rudd, chair at Heathrow from 2007 until 2016, said British Airways ‘lost its way during Willie’s reign’.
His comments came in a letter he sent to The Mail on Sunday this weekend after being infuriated by Walsh’s comments in this newspaper last week in which the former BA boss branded Heathrow’s 100,000-a-day passenger cap ‘farcical’.
Going head-to-head: ‘Slasher’ Walsh vs Razor Rudd in bitter battle of the air barons
The controversial decision to limit the number of passengers was made in an effort to alleviate queues. The decision, which has angered airlines, will restrict arrivals and departures until after the October half term.
In his letter, he accuses Walsh of ‘constant jibing at Heathrow’. Recalling his own stint in the chair at the airport group, Rudd said he had ‘wanted to fight back’ but that he was advised against doing so. ‘The prevailing view was that we couldn’t as he was our largest customer,’ Rudd added. ‘I wish I had ignored that advice and exposed him for what he was – a person that trashed a great brand and created a company that is a byword for poor service.’
Walsh was chief executive of British Airways and then ran its parent, International Airlines Group, from 2011 until 2021 after the UK flag carrier merged with Spain’s Iberia.
He criticised Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye last weekend in the MoS for his failure to cope with a surge in demand over the summer holiday period – claiming the airport ‘should have been better prepared’ and ‘clearly can’t cope’. Walsh added: ‘If we are in the same position next year, then without question, people should be fired.’ The 60-year-old Irishman even branded Heathrow bosses ‘a bunch of idiots’. He also backed calls for investors – the Spanish giant Ferrovial and the Qatar Investment Authority – to stump up cash instead of asking permission from the regulator to charge passengers more to boost its financial performance.
‘The shareholders are extremely rich,’ Walsh said. ‘They have done extremely well out of Heathrow. I think there is a strong case that has been made that, if Heathrow’s balance sheet needs to be repaired, the first place it should go now is to its shareholders.’
He now runs the International Air Transport Association which represents hundreds of airlines including his former employer IAG.
He told the MoS: ‘I think they [Heathrow] should have been better prepared. It is farcical imposing these restrictions at the last minute on airlines when in many cases they have sold tickets. It is a terrible way of doing business.’
But Rudd, 75, said: ‘I was chairman of Heathrow when Willie Walsh was leading British Airways. While I was leading unprecedented investment in critical national infrastructure at the airport, what I witnessed on his watch was a man so obsessed with ‘slashing’ costs that our country’s flag carrier nosedived from one of the best in the world to a laughing stock.
‘Complimentary economy meals and free hold baggage ditched, hard-working flight crew sleeping in cars because their pay was so low, thousands of people were fired and rehired on inferior contracts and critical IT systems left to rot, leaving millions stranded when they stopped working. Today, whenever BA is raised with me in a conversation, the universal view is that it’s an airline that entirely lost its way during Willie’s reign. I’m relieved to see that the current management team at BA are flushing his approach down the lavatory.’
Walsh – once given the nickname ‘Slasher’ – was among airline bosses who cut thousands of staff at the beginning of the pandemic – more than 12,000 at International Airlines Group, which he ran until 2021. EasyJet made a similar decision as it slashed 4,500 roles.
Rudd continued: ‘Willie got on his soapbox in this paper last week about airports being unprepared for the summer, but the irony is that he appears totally oblivious that this is just his cost-cutting legacy coming home to roost.’
Rudd said the root of the crisis in the industry was a shortage of baggage handlers. He called on Walsh to galvanise his members to invest in them and solve the problem.
Over the past two years more than 50 per cent of Europe’s ground handling staff have left the industry, many going to work in higher paid delivery jobs.
‘Why would anyone want to be an airline ground handler when you can get more pay and better conditions delivering for Amazon?
‘It’s high time he stopped blaming everyone else…and admitted that you can’t ‘slash’ your way to a resilient, reliable service.’
But last night Walsh hit back, saying: ‘Heathrow’s efforts to deflect attention from their abysmal performance are laughable.’ He added: ‘My criticism seems to have upset them. I will continue to hold them to account and enjoy exposing their failures.’
RUTH SUNDERLAND: Stop fighting… and help the paying public instead
Entertaining though it is to see two corporate titans bashing seven bells out of one another, I imagine I speak for most of the travelling public when I say Sir Nigel Rudd and Willie Walsh could make far better use of their verbal talents.
Instead of pouring out torrents of invective and bile on one another, these two jumbos of the airline industry should turn their minds to helping customers.
Who is right in the row? The terrible thing is that they both are. There are large nuggets of truth in their mutual recriminations, and this is no consolation whatsoever to passengers whose holidays and business trips have been wrecked. Never has the old phrase about the pot and the kettle been so apt.
When Rudd, sounding like a shop-steward on steroids, accuses Walsh of being obsessed with slashing costs, he hits a nerve.
For his part, Walsh is on the money when he lambasts Heathrow’s move to cap passenger numbers as ‘farcical’. He is also quite right to argue that the airport’s rich foreign share holders should put their hands in their pockets to repair its debt-riddled balance sheet.
Neither man comes with a reputation as a corporate saint – in fact, they both have enough baggage to jam a carousel.
When he was head of BA’s parent company, Walsh’s relations with unions was toxic. To take just one example, early on in the pandemic he was attacked by MPs who suspected him of using Covid as cover to cut 12,000 jobs.
Veteran industrialist Rudd is a serial chairman who has sold a string of British companies to foreign bidders, earning himself the nickname Sir Sell-Off. The most recent of these, defence firm Meggitt, has just been cleared by the Government for sale to a US aerospace company.
Both men have a reputation for being forthright. As former bosses, they are able to dispense with diplomacy in a way the current top brass at Heathrow and BA cannot. Whether the pair have been put up to it by their former employers or are acting on their own initiative, they are proxy generals in an unedifying battle to deny blame.
Rather than this self-indulgent festival of insults, Walsh and Rudd could have used their stature as elder statesmen to co-operate on alleviating the airport chaos.
Fat chance. Each has adopted a pose of bristling, self-righteous indignation, painting their organisation as the injured party. There is more than a touch of absurdity about this, coming from a couple of very rich men representing powerful corporate interests.
Neither seems to care much about the real victims here – the poor old passengers.
Sir Nigel Rudd: Letter in full
I was Chairman of Heathrow when Willie Walsh was leading British Airways.
While I was leading unprecedented investment in critical national infrastructure at the airport, what I witnessed on his watch was a man so obsessed with ‘slashing’ costs that our country’s flag carrier nosedived from one of the best in the world to a laughingstock.
Complimentary economy meals and free hold baggage ditched, hardworking flight crew sleeping in cars because their pay was so low, thousands of people were fired and rehired on inferior contracts and critical IT systems left to rot leaving millions stranded when they stopped working.
Today, whenever BA is raised with me in a conversation, the universal view is that it’s an airline that entirely lost its way during Willie’s reign. I’m relieved to see that the current management team at BA are flushing his approach down the lavatory.
Willie got on his soapbox in this paper last week about airports being unprepared for the summer, but the irony is that he appears totally oblivious that this is just his cost-cutting legacy coming home to roost.
The main problem facing the aviation system in Europe this summer is a shortage of airline ground handlers. It is precisely because for too long airlines have squeezed tighter and tighter contracts out of their ground handlers that there is a shortfall of people willing to work for them.
Why would anyone want to be an airline ground handler when you can get more pay and better conditions delivering for Amazon?
Airlines have secured no increase in the numbers of their ground handlers at Heathrow since January, despite proclaiming that passenger demand was going to return to pre-pandemic levels this year. Important questions must be asked, including why did airlines allow this to happen?
The reality is, Willie Walsh is a guy whose instincts are to chase higher and higher share prices, not to invest to secure the best outcomes for passengers.
When I was Chairman I wanted to fight back at his constant jibing against Heathrow. The prevailing view was that we couldn’t fight back as he was our largest customer. I wish I had ignored that advice and exposed him for what he was.
A person that trashed a great brand and created a company that is a byword for poor service. It’s high time he stopped blaming everyone else, took a cold hard look in the mirror and admitted that you can’t ‘slash’ your way to a resilient, reliable service.
Willie may not know what that looks like, but he’d be wise to start by putting all of his efforts into getting his airline members to invest more in their ground handlers rather than passing the buck to someone else.
Sir Nigel Rudd, former Chairman, Heathrow Airport