A cowboy name. Heavy on the consonants and crudely clipped, the first three letters doubling as an instrument of discipline, it is as solid and unpretty as the man it refers to. Given recent challenges, a perfect moniker for a captain of the British aviation industry. ‘I’ve been an airline chief executive for over ten years now and it is a stressful job,’ Rod Eddington is saying, fixing me with a crap-cutting, High Noon look. ‘But you have to be able to accept that it’s stressful. I won’t pretend for a moment that it’s been easy.’
We are sitting in a windowless, over-furnished boardroom in the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly. Eddington, who starts work each day shortly after 7 a.m., has been here conducting meetings since early this morning. When I walk in at quarter past ten, he jumps from his seat and goes over to the sideboard to make me a cup of tea. ‘Have you ever been to Darjeeling?’ he asks, dunking the tea bag. ‘I have. Beautiful place. Up in the hills.’ Small talk dispensed with, the CEO hands me a cup and takes his seat. He appears to be in a good mood – and he has reason to be.
After two years of global political strife and economic disasters, things are finally looking up for British Airways. Share prices have bounced back and, according to the interim numbers, the airline is making money again. The profits were hard-earned for Eddington, who has presided over tough times since taking over the top executive BA post two years ago. Last year was particularly dismal. Following a devastating £200 million loss, the airline dropped out of the FT-SE index. ‘Let’s see, since I arrived it’s been the Concorde crash, foot-and-mouth, and then 9/11,’ he says, chuckling through his teeth. ‘I said to someone the other day that if I was still working in Hong Kong, my secretary would have got the Feng Shui man in and he would have rearranged my furniture.’
The 52-year-old Australian moved to Berkshire with his Korean wife, Young Sook, and their two young children (aged six and nine) two years ago after more than 20 years spent working in the Far East. After a lengthy tenure at Cathay Pacific, Eddington headed up Ansett, the now-defunct Australian airline, before moving on to BA. So happy was he to be back in Britain (he completed a doctorate in nuclear science and engineering at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar when in his twenties) that one of the first things he did was slap the Union Flag back on the tail-fin of BA planes.
Speaking in unerringly positive terms, Eddington resists any opportunity to take a swipe at the former CEO, Bob Ayling. Yet the fact remains that in overhauling the airline Eddington undid many of his predecessor’s major projects, starting with the unpopular ethnic tail-fin designs. A national air carrier, he says, should cultivate a strong cultural ‘brand identity’ in its livery and service. This is a quality he has long admired in BA. As an airport manager in Hong Kong, he noticed that many of his Chinese friends, usually dedicated Cathay Pacific customers, would fly British Airways whenever they travelled to London. ‘When I asked them why, they would say,