Ian Monk: BA boss plays the patriotic games

Since its inception, aviation has spawned a pantheon of popular heroes. From the early fliers to the cartel-busting buccaneers Laker, Stelios and Branson, its characters have always caught the imagination.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

Now a new name is poised to join the pantheon. But should the bold pronouncements of BA chief Willie Walsh's about facing-down the cabin crew strikers prove to be hot air, then his career could crash and burn as spectacularly as those pioneers whose deaths provide footnotes in the story of manned flight.

Like the knights of the sky, Branson and Laker, Walsh's PR approach is shrewd, populist and front of house. Unlike them, he does not own an airline. He is merely the current steward of BA, its chief executive, faced with a strike by 12,000 employees that threatens to wreck holiday and business plans - and the airline's future.

Walsh's PR strategy has been to place himself often and conspicuously in front of the microphone to take personal responsibility for stopping the strike. Often eschewing official spokesman, he presses the buttons of populism and patriotism. He instinctively grasps that there are more headlines in holidaymakers than business travellers. BA briefings concentrate on the threat posed to Easter getaways, although the effect of a strike on business travel would be calamitous.

Walsh's public utterances also play the patriotic card in seeking to defend one of Britain's highest profile flagship firms from the damage a strike would wreak.

Against this background, briefings on plans to bring in thousands of strike-busters and squadrons of borrowed aircraft provide irresistible grist to the tabloid and TV mill. Simultaneously, smart lobbying suggests high-level political chicanery and weakness.

If in thrall to union cash, this renders the PM impotent to condemn the strike. At the same time, a narrative emerges about Brown being possibly conflicted by the role of his adviser, Charlie Whelan, on behalf of Unite, the union involved in the strike. At a time of looming industrial unrest, many beyond airline stakeholders will be watching Walsh's tough-guy stance and hoping he does not fly too close to the sun.

- Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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