Willie Walsh has become a key figure in the aviation industry after a 15-year career at the helm of British Airways and International Airlines Group (IAG).
He led the merger of BA and Spanish airline Iberia to form IAG in 2011, and it has since gone on to become one of the world’s largest airline groups after adding a raft of carriers to its stable.
As well as BA and Iberia, IAG also now owns Ireland’s Aer Lingus, low-cost airlines Vueling and Level, and recently acquired Spanish airline Air Europa.
A former pilot himself, Mr Walsh had already revealed plans last November to retire within two years.
He said at the time that he wanted to step down before his 60th birthday on October 25 2021.
“I still love what I do, but my intention is to be retired within the next two years,” he told a capital markets briefing last year.
But his exit has come a little earlier than expected.
It follows an unfortunate 2019 for BA, which has been forced to warn over profits after a summer of industrial action.
The first pilots’ strike in BA’s history saw the UK flag-carrier cancel thousands of flights in September amid a long-running dispute over pay.
Mr Walsh has not yet disclosed his plans for life after IAG, but will no doubt be asked about this when the group unveils its full-year results on February 28.
Mr Walsh started his career in the industry as a cadet pilot for Aer Lingus in 1979 before working his way up the ranks to become chief executive of the Irish airline in 2001.
He then became chief executive of BA in 2005 until its merger with Iberia six years later, when he was appointed to head up the wider IAG group.
Mr Walsh succeeded in snapping up Aer Lingus in 2015 after overcoming a long-running feud with low-cost Irish rival Ryanair.
Ryanair – led by outspoken boss Michael O’Leary – finally agreed to sell its stake in Aer Lingus to IAG, having itself tried to buy the carrier several times.
Mr Walsh and Mr O’Leary have been fierce rivals over the years, but have also admitted admiration for each other and have often joined forces on industry issues, such as airlines taxes.
While Mr Walsh will be a hard act to follow at IAG, his successor – Iberia chief executive Luis Gallego – is seen as a strong choice.
James Goodall, airlines analyst at Redburn, said: “IAG has good succession planning in place and we see the promotion of Luis Gallego to group chief executive as a good option.
“Luis has an exceptional track record, turning around Iberia over the past five years.”