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Willie Walsh blasts 'blind and deaf' union as Qatar rides to BA owner's rescue

Oliver Gill
·3-min read
Willie Walsh
Willie Walsh

Willie Walsh, the outgoing boss of British Airways owner IAG, has launched a searing attack on trade unions as Qatar tightened its grip on the FTSE 100 airlines group.

As IAG posted record quarterly losses, Mr Walsh labelled the Unite union “blind and deaf” in a dramatic escalation of an industrial row.

The group also plans to tap investors for £2.5bn, a quarter of which will come from Qatar Airways.

Shares sank 9pc to just under 165p, valuing the company at £3.6bn. The stock has lost about three quarters of its value this year.

BA announced up to 12,000 redundancies in April in response to the pandemic, which led to all but a handful of flights being grounded.

Union leaders are angry at BA’s plans to “fire and rehire” some cabin crew, forcing those that remain at the airline to accept inferior pay and working conditions.

“At the heart of this, you have a trade union that has refused to accept that this is a crisis that needs to be addressed,” Mr Walsh said.

“The Unite trade union has told everybody that this is a temporary issue that can be resolved by temporary measures.  You have a trade union that is blind and deaf to the reality of the challenge that we face.

"And anybody that doubts that just needs to look at the figures. A £711m loss in one quarter goes way beyond anything that has happened. Burning cash at a rate of £20m-a-day goes way beyond anything that has happened.”

He added: “The business has to be in a different shape in the future than it was in the past. There is no point looking back at the way BA was. Because we are never going back to that environment. It has to restructure itself to ensure that it can be viable in the future.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey urged IAG to step back from its “fire and rehire” plans.

“No other employer in the aviation sector is pursuing this course of industrial vandalism. [IAG] can afford to make better choices - it has billions in the bank and even plans to expand by purchasing another airline, Air Europa, which is hardly the act of a business on its knees,” he said.

“It has also chosen not to attack the workforces of the other airlines in its group such as Iberia and Aer Lingus. We cannot therefore see its assault on the workers of BA as anything other than a deliberate and opportunistic decision to reshape the airline for the financial benefit of the boardroom.”

IAG struck a deal with pilots in July. Up to 270 pilots face compulsory redundancy under measures agreed by the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) with “fire and rehire” plans not implemented for those who remain.

State-owned Qatar Airways increased its stake in IAG earlier this year to 25pc.

As part of the fundraising, Qatar decided to take up its right to propose two directors to join the IAG board.

Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker said: “We look forward to working closely together to deliver our joint vision to enhance travel opportunities for airline passengers across the globe.”

IAG also announced that Javier Ferrán, chairman of drinks giant Diageo, will succeed Antonio Vázquez as chairman from the beginning of next year.

Separately, KLM said it would cut about 1,500 staff from its workforce of 33,000 to deal with the "crisis of unprecedented magnitude" caused by the pandemic.

The cuts are on top of 2,000 voluntary redundancies announced earlier this year and are in addition to the non-renewal of 1,500 temporary contracts.