Walsh's 15-year tenure as CEO of IAG is impressive but not unique. Sir Tim Clark has been president of Emirates for 17 years and Michael O'Leary, Ryanair CEO, and Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways CEO, have held their posts for more than 20 years apiece. Pedro Heilbron is in his 33rd year as CEO of Copa Airlines, the Panamanian carrier.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on January 10, 2020

Luis Gallego, the CEO of Spanish airline Iberia, will replace Willie Walsh as CEO of International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG) by late March.

Walsh was CEO of IAG, an Anglo-Spanish multinational airline holding company, for 15 years. IAG was formed in January 2011 after a £5 billion merger between British Airways and Iberia, the flag carriers of the UK and Spain. IAG also owns Aer Lingus, IAG Cargo, LEVEL, Level Europe, Vueling and Avios Group.

Gallego transformed and modernised Iberia over seven years. In his first year as CEO, he was able to cut the airline’s losses by half, while in his second year in office, he was able to make Iberia profitable after six years of operating losses. Additionally, he has reached labour agreements with all Iberia’s staff groups to reduce labour costs and increase employees’ productivity. Since then, Iberia’s quality and recommendation indexes of the airline’s customers have reached a record level and the airline has become one of the world’s most punctual airlines.

Walsh, the key architect in the creation of IAG, said Gallego had shown “true leadership over the years”.

Gallego, also a member of IAG’s Management Committee, takes the helm of one of Europe’s most profitable airline groups. IAG made €2,897 million profit to the end of 2018, €2,009 million to the end of 2017, €1,952 million to the end of 2016, €1,516 million to the end of 2015 and €1,003 million to the end of 2014.

“Of the people internally Luis was clearly the obvious successor. Iberia has been an unquestionable success story since he’s been there. When he came in the restructuring and labour deals all came through,” said Andrew Lobbenberg, aviation analyst at HSBC told the Financial Times. “The other parts of the group — BA, Vueling — have faced several challenges.”

James Goodall, an airlines analyst at broker Redburn, told the Financial Times that Gallego “has an exceptional record, turning around Iberia over the past five years”.

“IAG has good succession planning in place and we see the promotion of Luis Gallego as a good option,” he added.

IAG, Luis Gallego, Willie Walsh

Gallego said it was “a huge honour” to take over as group CEO.

“It is an exciting time at IAG and I am confident that we can build on the strong foundations created by Willie,” he said.

One of Gallego’s first tasks will be to see through the integration of Spanish airline Air Europa, a deal reported to be worth €1 billion the group announced in November and is expected to close in the second half of this year if it can gain regulatory approval. If approved, Air Europa will be the third Spanish airline under IAG’s ownership.

If approved, IAG would own 84% of seats sold domestically in Spain, with the ambitions of the Air Europa transaction to solidify Madrid as an IAG hub along with London Heathrow for British Airways.

Walsh’s 15-year tenure as CEO is impressive but not unique. Sir Tim Clark has been president of Emirates for 17 years and Michael O’Leary, Ryanair CEO, and Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways CEO, have held their posts for more than 20 years apiece.

Pedro Heilbron is in his 33rd year as CEO of Copa Airlines, the Panamanian carrier.

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