Meeting CEO Willie Walsh: 737 MAX Optimism, Airbus Delays, & Legacy

“I don’t think we’ve seen as good a time in the industry as we have seen in the last few years — despite many challenges” Willie Walsh, Chief Executive Officer of the IAG Group (parent company to British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus, and Level) explained in Doha, Qatar. Walsh, an industry veteran who will retire later this year. While the industry has battled headwinds including fluctuating fuel prices, an ongoing 737 MAX crisis, and now a new outbreak of a virus that’s led to the suspension of multiple international routes to China and Hong Kong, Walsh believes aviation has previously been faced far worse. “This industry is incredibly robust. We will overcome these challenges like we always have done” he added.

In 2019, IAG Group surprised the industry by signing a letter of intent for the purchase of 200 Boeing 737 MAX jets. In selecting the 737 MAX, IAG said it will fly a combination of the 737 MAX 8, which seats up to 178 passengers in a two-class configuration, and the larger 737 MAX 10 jet, which can accommodate as many as 230 passengers. The decision to announce a large order following worldwide scrutiny of the 737 MAX jet, which suffered two fatal crashes in less than six months, is something Walsh stands by. “It’s the Boeing brand I’m investing in, not necessarily the ‘MAX’ brand,” he told me, signalling the group may drop the brand name in order to distance itself from the negative associations with the name. “I have every bit of confidence in this aircraft, it is under the most thorough investigation, for any aircraft — ever” he explained. The FAA continues to keep the 737 MAX under the spotlight, and it’s expected that the recertification process of the aircraft could begin in mid-2020, at the earliest. 

In Europe, Boeing’s rival manufacturer Airbus is struggling with its own challenges, centred around the production of A321neo jets. A321neo jets (including the A321LR, and upcoming A321XLR) have three cabin doors per side and up to two over-wing emergency exits, with the option to deactivate some doors/exits, depending on cabin layout. The door options along with cabin changes allow capacity to rise from the original maximum of 220 seats to up to 240.  The new configuration has caused heavy production delays and is delaying most A321neo deliveries by six-months, on average. On the topic of Airbus delivery delays, Willie Walsh said “Airbus has big problems with A321neo production at Hamburg. It’s not only annoying for us, but it’s also affecting our operation, particularly with Aer Lingus.” 

Walsh will stand down from the role of CEO and from the Board of IAG on 26 March and will retire on June 30. On the subject on his forthcoming retirement, I asked Walsh what he hoped he would be remembered for. He responded “I hope they forget about me — I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it’s time to move on, and there are other great leaders in the industry that will continue to challenge as I like to think I have challenged. I shall be watching with great interest and having a laugh at all of the hard work my colleagues will be doing over the years ahead”

While in Doha, Walsh took the opportunity to endorse Qatar’s decision to invest in a 49% stake in the flag carrier of Rwanda, Rwandair. He explained “The transformation of the aviation industry in Africa over the next ten years will be one to watch. This is evident in the investment Qatar Airways is making in Rwanda”.  

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