Margareta Pagano: It’s been a long haul for BA and Iberia, but now they must avoid a crash landing a

Over-capacity, tumbling passenger traffic, Luddite labour practices and
sky-high costs are still dogging the airline industry and are behind the
latest marriage between Willie Walsh’s BA and its Spanish bride, Iberia. It
may have taken the two nearly two years to consummate the union, but, this
is one of those relationships driven by need rather than desire. That
doesn’t mean, though, that it doesn’t make sense, and there’s no doubt that
this is a great deal for both parties. As results from Iberia on Friday
showed, the new airline will lose more than £1bn this year, and there will
be further losses for the next two years.

Nor are they the only ones flying close to the ground. British Midland (bmi)
admitted earlier this week that it will run out of money if it doesn’t get
more funding by next year, and, as we report on page 79, the UK budget
airline Flyglobespan is also perilously close to the brink..

That’s why Walsh can’t waste a second to get this marriage signed-off. But
first he must make sure the problems around BA’s £3bn-plus pension deficit ?
greater than its own market worth of £2.5bn ? which has been ring-fenced
from the Iberia tie-up, are dealt with as swiftly as possible. Iberia has
reserved the right to walk away from the deal if the funding hole turns out
to be bigger than the £3bn forecast. BA’s pension trustees should have the
result of their triennial review ready within the next few weeks which will
provide the latest actuarial valuation of the deficit as of March this year.
While some analysts are surprised that Walsh has gone ahead with Iberia
without the formal backing of the trustees, I’m told negotiations are going
well and he’s hopeful that a deal can be agreed on the actual size of the
deficit, as well as the amount of cash which BA will have to contribute
annually to fund the deficit, by Christmas.

Walsh’s second priority is to face up to the unions which, understandably,
have said they won’t back the merger unless assurances are given that there
will be no compulsory job losses. So far, most of the planned cuts, to
achieve the £400m or so of cost-savings, will be in IT, fleet maintenance
and back-office, which are the less unionised areas. Even so, it’s
impossible for Walsh to give such cast-iron guarantees, but if he wants BA’s
notoriously awful labour relations to improve, then he should make the
biggest of all efforts to work with the unions as closely as he can. And the
unions should realise that if this deal doesn’t fly then they may ground not
just the Iberian deal but their own airline.

But Walsh ? himself a pilot ? must also choose his route carefully. As
advertisers will tell him, he has to decide exactly what sort of airline the
new BA-Iberia will be. A gold-plated premium airline service, complete with
hot towels and cutlery, which the well off are happy to pay for, or a good
mid-market carrier, though clearly above Ryanair or easyJet? With them you
get what you expect. Not with BA anymore; it’s as if it’s suffering an
identity crisis. Walsh needs to rediscover BA’s image, as he gears up for
the biggest deal of all ? with American Airlines, which is still waiting on
anti-trust clearance from the US authorities.

That’s the plum catch, if they can pull it off, and the one that can bring
scale to the industry. Otherwise, even Wilbur’s job could be on the line.

Oh, leave them alone. Parker and Hampton know what they’re doing

If you had to choose two directors to sit on the board of a company in which
you were a big investor, you wouldn’t go wrong in picking Sir John Parker,
chairman of Anglo American, and Sir Philip Hampton, who is about to join
Anglo’s board.

Sir John is also chairman of National Grid, another big UK company, while Sir
Philip is chairman of the government-owned Royal Bank of Scotland, having
stood down as chairman of J Sainsbury to take on one of the most troubled
jobs in corporate Britain. Both men have sharp intellects, enormous
industrial experience and should be trusted to know how much Sir Philip can
cope with.

That’s why the fuss from institutional investors over Sir Philip taking on
Anglo ? because they fear he won’t have time to dohis job at RBS properly ?
is so trivial. And I’m not sure whether the original protester ever meant
his comments to have caused such a stir.

Are we really expected to think that Sir Philip would have taken on Anglo if
he didn’t believe he could devote either the time or the energy? He
certainly doesn’t need the money, as his RBS job earns him £750,000 plus a
£1.5m option package. Nor can I imagine Sir John taking on Sir Philip if he
didn’t think he had time to do the work; the Anglo chairman is a hard
taskmaster.

This latest skirmish tells us more about the state of the institutions. They
were behind the curve in putting pressure on company boards when they really
needed to make trouble ? RBS under Sir Fred Goodwin and Lord Stevenson at
HBOS, being good examples ? and are now trying to catch up.

While their new-found diligence is worthy and will, I hope, continue, I’m
afraid this looks like a case of shutting the boardroom doors after the
asses have bolted, and all that.

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