I’ve never been a fan of outgoing British Airways CEO Alex Cruz, but I also don’t like to dance on a man’s grave, literally or figuratively. Nevertheless, here is my measured assessment of his legacy at British Airways.
First, British media is suggesting this morning that Cruz was forced out by incoming IAG CEO Luis Gallego’s wish to “flex his muscles” in his new role as chief. That is an unconfirmed tabloid report, but it makes little sense Cruz would leave of his own volition in the midst of a crisis.
Alex Cruz Legacy: The Pros
Let’s start with what Cruz did well or what was accomplished at British Airways under his tenure.
I thought his final defense before Parliament concerning the labor actions British Airways had threatened was nothing short of masterful. He was asked to defend the indefensible and did a darn good job of it. In fact, he even had me convinced momentarily. I do not say that facetiously. Quite the contrary, my point is that he had both political and oratorical skills that clearly served him well.
Second, I still love flying British Airways in a premium cabin. In fact, prior to the pandemic the experience was better than ever, with a tasty new catering partnership with Do & Co and an investment in a new Club World Suite that marked a huge positive evolution of the BA business class product.
Finally, he was sent in to build profits and did exactly that. I don’t hold the pandemic (itself) against him.
Alex Cruz Legacy: The Cons
The IT meltdown (which cost BA £80 million) and data breaches (which cost BA a fine of £183.4 million) were certainly low points under his watch, but not the lowest point.
I’d say the lowest point was Cruz’s seeming disdain for employees throughout his tenure but particularly after the pandemic hit. The 2019 pilot strike was bad: that left nearly 200,000 passengers stranded after 1,700 fights were canceled. But by threatening to fire every flight attendant and rehire them at much lower wages, Cruz acted penny wise, pound foolish. His actions showed not just a superficial desire to save the company, but disdain for employees, especially as he continued to rake in a huge salary. That compromised his ultimate goal.
All this as BA richly benefited from the allocation of the majority of slots at London Heathrow from the UK government, a deal that implied a reciprocal obligation to treat staff with respect.
Some have alleged that Cruz was simply on the puppet strings of recently-retired IAG CEO Willie Walsh, who ran British Airways for many years prior to Cruz. That may have been the case, but that does not absolve Cruz of his actions. Quite the contrary, it implicates him not only as a poor leader, but a weak one.
Finally, BA’s evisceration of free meals and especially drinks onboard while reducing legroom made it a low-cost-carreir on shorthaul flights. In fact, Ryanair and EasyJet offered better seat pitch in economy class than did BA. I suppose that is hardly a surprise considering Cruz came from Vueling, but I found the British Airways economy shorthaul product simply unbearable.
Cruz did not have an easy job. I wish him all the best going forward. He leaves a mixed legacy. Unfortunately, it is too soon to say whether I will miss him or not. I hope incoming CEO Sean Doyle will not make us all wish for Cruz to return. But it’s too early to tell. Adiós…