The well-known former British Airways comms supremo flew out to the United Arab Emirates last Thursday to join Etihad, the country’s ambitious three-year-old flag carrier, as V-P of corporate comms.
He is pally (his chats seem to always sign off with a cheerful ‘cheers, mate!’) and upbeat when interviewed just hours before his flight departs for his new life in the Gulf.
Burns, of course, remains embroiled in the transatlantic price-fixing investigation into BA fuel surcharges that kicked off in June. Burns, along with his then boss, commercial director Martin George, was placed on leave of absence and the pair resigned in October. All he will say on the affair is: ‘I will continue to co-operate with the authorities.’
The 48-year-old was recruited for the Etihad job by CEO James Hogan, the former BMI and Gulf Air boss who joined in October. Hogan, says Burns, naturally ‘raised the matter’ of the price-fixing investigation during the two interviews he attended in Abu Dhabi for the job – but clearly neither believe it to be a major impediment.
Other potential post-BA employers were apparently not put off either: Burns says he had ‘serious conversations’ over potential employment with two major PR agencies in London, two agencies with offices in eastern Europe, a telecoms giant and even an accountancy firm – before opting to remain within the sector he knows so well.
Those who know Burns struggle to envisage him working in any other sector than aviation, which he broke into via PR jobs at BAA and Manchester Airport – and that included a stint from 2000-2001 at Bell Pottinger advising Dubai-based Etihad competitor Emirates.
One ex-colleague says: ‘Iain is popular among the Fleet Street transport guys. I can understand him leaving the UK at the moment, given the price-fixing allegations, but if you’ve “done” BA as he has, where else are you going to go in the UK anyway? That’s why Etihad makes sense for him – and the Gulf carriers are where the excitement is in the aviation world at the moment, too.’
Burns has relocated to Abu Dhabi with his wife, a former BA press officer who is now a pilates instructor. The couple have already earmarked a property they hope to move into within the next few weeks.
‘I’ve been to Dubai many times before but never to Abu Dhabi,’ says Burns. ‘It’s much greener and lusher than I thought.’
As for Etihad, he says: ‘People have said to me “give it a couple of years out there”. But I’m not putting any time limit on this move at all, I’m here with an open mind.’
Etihad, launched in 2003, is wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi government and has major global expansion plans (‘these are formidable – they seem to be opening routes on a monthly basis’) backed by the billionaire royal family. By the time you read this, Burns will be in Kuala Lumpur to launch a route.
The airline’s global PR agency Fleishman-Hillard will need to quickly prove its mettle. Burns recalls reviewing BA’s relationship with Brunswick soon after joining the airline (the City agency held on to its contract) and he expects similarly to put F-H’s Etihad brief under the microscope. But he stops short of forecasting a fully fledged repitch just yet.
Life at Etihad will certainly be different from BA’s pressure-cooker atmosphere. Instead of the media fire-fighting and crisis management that preoccupied so much of his time in his former role, Burns’s task now is to build the global reputation of a fledgling brand.
It seems appropriate to ask what was going through his mind as he glanced down to BA’s Waterside HQ after his plane left the Heathrow tarmac last week.
The Manchester City and Oasis fan responds: ‘I didn’t have a window seat. But if I had – and spotted Waterside – I would have been thinking “don’t look back in anger”.’
CV - Iain Burns
V-P of corporate comms, Etihad Airways
Head of comms, British Airways
Consultant, Bell Pottinger Public Relations
Media relations, then newsdesk manager, British Airways
PR manager, American Airlines