The head of the owner of British Airways has said he admires his fierce Ryanair rival Michael O’Leary.
Willie Walsh paid tribute to his fellow Irishman, who he said had managed to turn a profit while expanding his budget carrier in a rare airline business feat.
Mr Walsh leads the International Airlines Group (IAG), one of the world’s largest airline groups with 525 aircraft flying to 255 destinations and carrying almost 95m passengers each year. His airlines have faced stiff competition from low-cost operators including Ryanair.
He said: “I have huge admiration for him (Mr O’Leary) but I would not necessarily do things the way he does.”
As chief executive, Mr Walsh brought Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus from the verge of bankruptcy following the 9/11 terror attacks to one of the most profitable airlines in Europe – with massive job losses.
He was head hunted by British Airways but his tenure there was combative, clashing repeatedly with unions over issues such as staff perks. Latterly, he has been chief executive of the IAG which owns BA, Iberia and several other airlines.
Mr O’Leary’s Ryanair has been a formidable competitor for business.
His countryman told an audience in Belfast: “You have to admire his results, he is a true leader and I have grudging admiration for the guy.”
When Mr Walsh started out as a pilot with Aer Lingus, the retirement age was 55. Ahead of reaching that milestone this year, he said he had no plans to step down.
“I see myself probably doing a few more years. If I can get up in the morning and look forward to going to work, then that is what I do.
“If I get up one morning and feel I don’t want to do this, then I will finish.”
He has faced challenges with BA, taking personal responsibility for the fiasco surrounding the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow when the baggage system broke down and flights had to be cancelled.
He sacked two members of staff following the debacle, which he said was partly the fault of Heathrow.
Mr Walsh admitted that he was determined and not there to compromise.
Musing on possible retirement, he said he had a boat moored on the Thames and could take it up the Shannon River or around the Irish coastline.
However he said he had not had a holiday since a skiing trip a decade ago after he left Aer Lingus and put his success down to that determination and dedication.
He acknowledged leaders sometimes had to be prepared to be the bearers of bad news.
In a play on the words of writer George Bernard Shaw, while a pilots’ union representative at Aer Lingus, he once said: “A reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations.”