Willie Walsh was jeered, heckled and booed over his handling of the British Airways cabin crew dispute at what could be the last annual meeting of the airline in its current form.
The BA chief executive, and at times the airline’s entire board, endured a volley of attacks by shareholders, many employees, at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster over the strikes that have cost lossmaking BA close to £150m since March.
“Nobody has the guts to question you,” one female flight attendant told Mr Walsh, adding “there’s nothing but fear and loathing” at BA’s headquarters near Heathrow.
A stony faced Mr Walsh, who noted some cabin crew had depicted him “as Hitler or as the Devil” during the walk-outs, said he made no apologies for telling them facts they may not wish to hear, prompting the flight attendant to retort icily: “I’m not a child Mr Walsh.”
It was the first time Mr Walsh had to confront his cabin crew employees publicly since they began voting for a series of stoppages late last year.
Although BA has had to cope with the losses and the bad publicity, it has already done what it set out to do.
While the row was originally sparked by what Unite said was the imposition of crew reductions on long-haul flights, it has since shifted to the staff travel benefits BA removed from striking workers this year and has said will only partially restore. The crew reductions are no longer central to the dispute.
Nevertheless, strikes are still on the agenda. Crew are now voting in a fresh ballot that could lead to further strikes in late summer, depending on the results, due on July 20.
BA has been backed by its largest shareholders and much of the City. Analysts generally look beyond the unrest to annual savings of some £160m BA says it will eventually make after cutting crew numbers on long- haul flights and recruiting cheaper new crew at its main base of Heathrow.
Airlines around the world have suffered industrial unrest as many struggle with large losses during the recession.
Such feisty AGM scenes will not be repeated at next year’s meeting – at least, not in London – if BA’s attempt to merge with Iberia, the Spanish flag-carrier, is completed as planned by the end of this year.
The newly combined company, to be known as International Airlines Group, will be registered in Madrid and hold most of its board meetings and all shareholder meetings in the Spanish capital.
Mr Walsh will become IAG’s chief executive if the merger goes through, leaving Keith Williams, BA’s current finance director, to run a BA operating company and deal with any remnants of the bitterly fought cabin crew strike.
While many of the most critical speakers and hecklers at Tuesday’s AGM were airline cabin crew or in one case, a 777 pilot, others said they were ordinary shareholders who were, as one put it, “very saddened by the cabin crew situation”, which has seen 22 days of stoppages and thousands of cancelled flights since March.
“I just feel this situation has created long-term damage to the brand,” said one man who described himself as a “shareholder and Executive Club member”.
Another man was cheered as he accused the board of awarding generous bonuses to top managers even though BA has failed to pay a dividend after making record pre-tax losses of nearly £1bn over the past two years.
“You do seem to be feathering your own nests at the expense of the shareholders you are supposed to serve,’’ he said.
An at times exasperated BA chairman Martin Broughton defended the bonuses and said the BA board “stands firmly behind Willie and the management team”.
“The board’s patience with BASSA has now been exhausted,” Mr Broughton warned, referring to the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association, a division of Unite.
“Willie is often depicted by BASSA and Unite as adopting a confrontational approach to industrial relations,” he said, adding that Mr Walsh had successfully negotiated new work practises with 16 separate union bargaining groups across the business.
But it was Mr Walsh – who has himself not taken a bonus and worked for no salary for a month last year – who suffered the most strident attacks.
One speaker accused him of allowing BA staff who could not swim and were “unable to fasten their seat belts” to apply to be volunteer cabin crew as part of the airline’s strategy of flying through the strikes. Mr Walsh said only Civil Aviation Authority-approved volunteers had been allowed to work.
Another accused him of ignoring BASSA’s offer ahead of the strikes to make at least £52m in savings. Mr Walsh said BASSA made clear the offer was more a temporary “loan” that in no way matched the permanent structural changes BA needs.
Afterwards, he told reporters, “I really enjoyed it”, adding “it gave me the opportunity to address a lot of issues”.
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