Willie Walsh sees off pay revolt in last day at British Airways owner

Willie Walsh has faced down a pay revolt on his last day as chief executive of British Airways owner IAG, despite almost 30% of shareholders failing to backhis remuneration deal, which included an £883,000 annual bonus.

The payout, which took Walsh’s total earnings for 2019 to £3.2m, was agreed before coronavirus sent the company’s finances into freefall and thousands of pilots, crew and ground staff were either sacked or forced to take substantial pay cuts.

Provisional numbers issued at the end of IAG’s annual shareholder meeting in Madrid on Tuesday showed only 71.6% of investors had voted to approve directors’ pay awards, with about 20% voting against.

Willie Walsh braces for a bumpy last ride in the airline business

Shareholders overwhelmingly backed the €2.75bn (£2.49bn) rights issue announced in July to shore up IAG’s liquidity during the Covid-19 crisis. Walsh said IAG could not expect 2019 levels of passenger demand to return until 2023 or even 2024.

The IAG chief executive had delayed by six months his handover to Luis Gallego, the boss of BA’s sister airline Iberia, after the impact of thepandemic on aviation became clear.

The 58-year-old Irishman said he was both retiring from IAG and leaving the aviation industry, where he started 41 years ago as a trainee pilot.

He said he was leaving with the industry in “the worst crisis we have ever faced, far worse than both 9/11 and the financial crash in 2008”, and highlighted the change in the latest quarterly financial results – a swing of nearly €2.4bn for April-June from 2019 to 2020, when most planes were grounded and passenger numbers fell by 98.4%.

He defended controversial moves to cut 12,000 BA staff and move others on to inferior contracts. He said: “We were quick to take action not only to address the immediate challenge we face from the pandemic but, critically, to enable us to emerge from the crisis in a strong position … ensuring that our businesses are the correct size and structure for the new operating environment in which they will find themselves.”

He attacked the government’s quarantine rules for their “huge impact on an already troubled aviation industry”, and said “there needs to be a more constructive approach by governments”. He backed the idea put forward by Heathrow of cutting quarantine periods through effective airport testing and establishing air corridors with parts of the US which have seen lower rates of Covid-19 infections.

Walsh, who took control of the newly formed IAG in 2011 after plotting its creation via a £5bn merger with Iberia, said it had been “one hell of a journey since then”.

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