Patience wheatcroft - the human factor

Patience wheatcroft - the human factor - At the base of the London Eye sits an impressive plaque declaring that the giant wheel was officially opened by Robert Ayling, the British Airways chief executive. The inscription might have added: 'over-due, over-

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

At the base of the London Eye sits an impressive plaque declaring that the giant wheel was officially opened by Robert Ayling, the British Airways chief executive. The inscription might have added: 'over-due, over-budget and the very last straw'.

Less than 24 hours after taking a spin with Joanna Lumley to celebrate the official opening of the Eye, Ayling was spinning out of BA's Waterside headquarters for the last time. The BA board had supported him through a damaging strike, the embarrassing debacle over the gaudy tailfins, vanishing profits and a plummeting share price. But it seems that the escalating cost of his pet project provided non-executive directors with the final reason for not putting up with his inept management any longer.

If his leadership of the airline was at fault - as the figures indicated - they were all a bit to blame. They appointed him, an uncharismatic lawyer, and backed his dubious strategy of being the world's most expensive airline.

But the determination to play a leading role in the celebrations was down to Ayling, as his chairing of the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) made clear, and as that plaque records for posterity.

And what the latest annual report from BA spells out is just how much Ayling's insistence on joining the fun has cost BA. When the Big Wheel idea was first mooted in 1996, its price tag was under pounds 10 million. BA's involvement was described as only that of a sponsor. But the figure climbed more rapidly than the wheel itself - to pounds 12 million in 1998 and pounds 20 million in 1999. By April this year, when the Eye had recovered from its unfortunate period as the world's only horizontal ferris wheel and opened for business, it was acknowledged that the total cost was closer to pounds 35 million, although the City still had the impression that only a fraction of this, about pounds 8 million, was to be met by BA.

The airline's accounts tell a different, more expensive, story. 'During the year British Airways acquired the majority of the risks and rewards in the activities of the London Eye Company,' they say. The total cost so far? A whopping pounds 75 million, of which pounds 50 million has already been paid by BA and a further pounds 20 million is funded by bank borrowings.

I gather that the non-executives were taken aback when they realised the extent of BA's commitment to a project that had made it the subject of ridicule by failing to open in time for the New Year. The London Eye offers an infinitely better New Millennium Experience than the Dome, but even if it is allowed to become a permanent fixture on the South Bank, it will be many years before it can be a net contributor to BA's profits.

The non-executives, with an average age of 64, could appreciate the potential comfort of flying beds, but pounds 75 million for a big wheel seemed a frivolity too far. It is not the role of companies to be so public-spirited with shareholders' money. Ayling seems to have been seduced by the idea that he should get inside New Labour's Big Tent and have fun. Perhaps he had a desire to catch up on the good times he missed by not going to university.

Since his predecessor, Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, appeared unable to encounter a quango without joining it, maybe Ayling thought there was nothing wrong with the national carrier's boss getting so involved with the nation's millennium celebrations.

Lord Marshall's raft of pro bono appointments did not have the same embarrassing knock-on effects for BA as Ayling's. For not only is the airline left to foot the huge bill for the Eye, but it is also stuck with being one of the Dome's most generous sponsors. With its chief executive in charge of the NMEC, it was hardly surprising that BA was such an early and enthusiastic volunteer to pour millions into the Greenwich Disaster Zone. Yet BA encountered as many technical hitches and failings of the NMEC as other sponsors.

So in his last days as chairman of the Dome, Ayling was in the ignominious position of finding BA so incensed with what he had delivered that it refused to hand over some of its sponsorship money. Shortly afterwards, Ayling himself was banished from Greenwich.

His efforts to join in the millennium fun ended in torrential tears, and his New Labour cronies were not queuing up to pass the tissues. Ayling was on his own again. At BA, he had alienated those above and below him.

Although Lord Marshall attracted some criticism for allowing the chief executive to take all the flak, insiders say he was elbowed out of the picture by his successor. His advice was neither sought nor welcomed.

Within BA, Ayling was seen as finding it hard to relate to staff. Though much was made of the lack of individual offices in the trendy Waterside HQ, he built virtual walls around himself, remaining a corporate lawyer rather than a leader. And his efforts to become Labour's favourite 'fun' businessman were as misguided as they were expensive.

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