Willie Walsh made no secret about his desire to retire as International Airlines Group (IAG) CEO before reaching the age of 60 in October 2021. He repeated it during last November’s Capital Markets Day, but on January 9, IAG confirmed that Walsh will be out much earlier. On March 26 and ‘just’ 58, the Irishman will stand down from the board and on June 30 will retire, with Iberia’s Luis Galeggo his successor as CEO.
While maybe not the icon in aviation that Sir Tim Clark has been at Emirates (to retire in June at 70), Walsh has nevertheless has left some significant marks on the industry. He has been instrumental in shaping the airline business in Europe, pushing for unity within the Airlines 4 Europe lobby group.
First, he transformed Irish Aer Lingus from a loss-making legacy carrier with a home market too small into a successful and thriving low-cost airline when Walsh led Aer Lingus from 2001 until 2005. It came at the cost of 2.500 jobs but in hindsight, the revised strategy has helped survive Aer Lingus in its direct competition with Ryanair and other LCC’s, but at the time the transformation was painful and not without industrial action. Walsh left Aer Lingus after the Irish government refused to bring the airline to the stockmarket.
After a very brief spell at Virgin Atlantic, he moved to British Airways in May 2005 to become the new CEO. Here too, Walsh was confronted with stiff opposition when trying to restructure BA to make it stand against the big European blocks in Germany and France.
His answer was the strategic decision to expand by buying Iberia and creating International Airlines Group in 2011 when he became the Group’s CEO. IAG grew by adding Aer Lingus and Spanish LCC Vueling, followed in 2017 by a careful step onto the long haul, low-cost market with LEVEL.
His attempts to buy Norwegian failed after running into opposition from the airline’s shareholders, but some say IAG will buy its time an try again later. More recently, IAG added Air Europa to its portfolio in order to grow its presence in the Spanish/Latin American market. Connecting to American Airlines was another smart move under Walsh’s reign.
Today, IAG is rated as one of the most efficiently run airline businesses in the world, with Ryanair and even Lufthansa copying its organizational structure.
Not everyone likes the little Irishman and his witty and frank style. While BA is run by Alex Cruz, it has been Walsh who hit most of the flak when its pilots went on a historic strike in 2019 that has cost the airline hundreds of millions of pounds. He also will not have many friends at the board of Heathrow Airport, who he slammed for their outrages expensive third runway-plans on more than one occasion.
Luis Galeggo will leave his post as Iberia’s CEO, where he has been at the helm since 2014. And not without success, as Iberia and Iberia Express have shown solid growth over recent years. “The Board is confident that Luis is the right person to lead IAG in the next stage of its development and we look forward to working closely with Luis in his new role”, IAG Chairman Antonio Vazquez said in a statement. The airline will nominate a successor later on.