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Sean Doyle: A soft-spoken insider to lead an airline in crisis

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Sean Doyle, the newly appointed boss of British Airways, has held on to a sense of perspective even as his industry crumbles around him.

Earlier this year, while still boss of Ireland’s Aer Lingus, he observed the sweeping disruption caused by coronavirus: “Being an airline chief executive is tough at the moment,” he said. “But I would rather be an airline CEO than an intensive care nurse or intensive care doctor.” The measured tone has come to characterise the Irishman’s management style over a two-decade career in aviation that has been spent almost entirely out of the spotlight.

A low-profile executive with a reputation for an analytical brain and encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, Mr Doyle has now been thrust into one of the most demanding jobs in corporate Britain: the national flag carrier, still stirs up a rare level of passion, scrutiny and invective.

British Airways is familiar turf. The fair-haired 49-year-old had spent 20 years at the airline before joining Aer Lingus in January 2019. He returns following the removal of the company’s beleaguered chief executive Alex Cruz this week by IAG, its parent group, which also owns Aer Lingus, Spain’s Iberia and several other airlines.

BA has been shaken by the coronavirus crisis and a turbulent four-and-a-half years under Mr Cruz that will be remembered for a series of public relations disasters including IT failures, a significant data breach and the airline’s first pilots’ strike.

Its business model was finely tuned to take advantage of the profits on long-haul and business class travel. But that has left it brutally exposed to those parts of the market now worst hit by the pandemic. Even as its rivals cut thousands of jobs to survive the crisis, BA has attracted particular criticism for the treatment of its cabin crew, and was dubbed “a national disgrace” by British politicians.

Mr Doyle inherits “a demoralised workforce during the greatest crisis the aviation industry has ever seen”, said Nadine Houghton, an officer at the GMB union. It is a stark difference from the company he joined in the late 1990s, which was then enjoying the last throes of a golden era: flying Concorde, still styling itself “the world’s favourite airline” and known for the quality of its service and premium cabins.

Threatened by low-cost rivals, the company slashed costs under the guiding hand of Willie Walsh, a pugnacious fellow Irishman who loomed large over BA as head of IAG until he stepped down last month. The airline’s critics, including a growing number of frequent flyers, lamented the loss of service on an airline that seemed to have lost its sparkle.

People who worked with Mr Doyle in his first stint at BA say his appointment looks like a deliberate change from the Cruz years, noting that he has learnt to compete within IAG for capital to invest in his part of the business. One executive who helped build IAG said it made sense for the airline’s image to replace someone with a reputation for cost-cutting and “radical changes” with a boss who could rebuild the company’s brand and relations with employees.

Mr Doyle hails from Youghal, a seaside town in the far east of the Irish county of Cork. His father was a policeman. He trained as a chartered accountant before working in a small printing company in Ireland and then joining the finance department of BA in 1998 when he was in his late twenties.

He steadily rose through the ranks and gathered a broad experience of the business, including stints abroad and helping to implement its partnership with American Airlines. As the network planner for two years, he was responsible for the most fundamental questions an airline faces: where and how often should it fly, and how many planes does it need to do that?

“He is a natural leader. There was no question [that] at some point he would be CEO within the organisation,” one former BA colleague said.

John Strickland, an aviation consultant, said the move to Aer Lingus was a “key step” to allow him to develop. In his short time there he deepened the Irish carrier’s push into the transatlantic market using the fuel-efficient, single-aisled A321neo aircraft.

Mr Doyle, who is married with one child, has retained strong links to Cork even as his career has taken off, according to those who know him. He is a passionate fan of hurling — a Gaelic sport somewhere between lacrosse and hockey — with a reputation for being aggressive but fair. Cork has produced some of Ireland’s best hurlers.

“He doesn’t have to be the star of the show,” says one person who has worked with him. “But he is forceful once he believes something is right. He gets things done.”

Mr Doyle will need to put those characteristics to good use if he is to smooth relations with BA’s customers and crew and politicians, while charting a course through the pandemic. His immediate challenge will be to convince the UK government to adopt a clear pre-flight testing regime for travellers, according to BA insiders.

He will also have to navigate Brexit, a task made more challenging by BA’s status as a national flagship.

“BA has been seen as a totem of British independence,” said Joe Gill, aviation specialist at Goodbody Stockbrokers. “There are some who would like to get BA out of IAG and owned by UK investors.” Yet with a career spanning both BA and IAG management, Mr Doyle is “well positioned to navigate the nuances of Brexit”, he added.

Mr Doyle may have started his career in BA’s golden age, but the soft-spoken leader will now have to deal with the biggest challenges ever to face the airline. “If he pulls it off . . . in five years’ time he could have a shot at taking the top job at IAG,” says Mr Gill. “He wouldn’t say it that way, but he is clearly an ambitious guy.”

philip.georgiadis@ft.com, peggy.hollinger@ft.com



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Vaccine cocktails cause headaches for Italy’s government

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Buongiorno and welcome to Europe Express.

Italian cocktails such as the Aperol Spritz are being enjoyed in many European capitals these sunny days, but mixing Covid-19 shots is proving a recipe with potentially toxic effects for the government of Mario Draghi. We will explore why recent flip-flops on this latest vaccination trend are dominating the political debate in Italy.

Sticking with toxic politics, an en masse resignation at the Oslo city council has highlighted the difficulties even respectable Nordic oil producing countries face in working out how to meet their international climate obligations.

As for the EU’s stalled Banking Union, the ball did not move yesterday because of multiple differences between eurozone finance ministers gathered in Luxembourg. Eurogroup chief Paschal Donohoe, who has been trying to land a “work plan” setting out how to advance the complex initiative, said it would take more time to agree the plan between member states and that he would return to the matter later this year. Here is a full rundown of why the project remains blocked.

This article is an on-site version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning

Toxic cocktail recipe

Mixing Covid-19 vaccines risks turning into a toxic cocktail recipe for Mario Draghi’s government, as an increasing number of Italians begin to shun immunisation, writes FT Milan correspondent Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli.

Italian authorities last week banned the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for people younger than 60. At the same time, they sought to impose mRNA jabs, such as BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, as the second dose for almost 1m people who had already received a first dose of the vaccine.

Both moves were prompted by the death of an 18-year-old woman (who allegedly suffered from low blood platelets) from a rare form of blood clot two weeks after receiving her first AstraZeneca dose.

But this latest change in guidelines sparked panic among the public, with thousands of people cancelling their vaccination appointments. Adding to the public scare was Marco Cavaleri, a senior European Medicines Agency official, who was misquoted in Italian media as saying that the AstraZeneca jab should be banned altogether.

The EU regulator reiterated this week that the advantages of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweighed the risks for all age groups.

Nevertheless, the Italian government has come under fire for failing to restrict it for younger people earlier and for continuing to give the public mixed messages on a vaccine that has been discontinued in several European countries and was banned for certain age groups in others months ago.

The idea of an obligatory cocktail of vaccines was met with strong opposition in Italy, where several regional governments signalled that they would not follow Rome’s orders and vowed to offer citizens an option for their second dose.

Yesterday, after an increasing number of people refused the vaccine cocktail and with only 24 per cent of the population fully immunised, officials in Rome suggested Italy might follow the “Spanish model.” Under that policy, people can still opt to receive their second AstraZeneca dose regardless of their age after signing a liability waiver in case of adverse effects. 

France has also approved mixing the AstraZeneca and mRNA vaccines for people under the age of 55, but it is not mandatory and applies to a smaller proportion of the population than in Italy.

Franco Locatelli, head of the health council, insisted preliminary studies showed mixing vaccines boosted the immune system’s response.

However, preliminary findings of a study published in The Lancet last month showed the vaccine cocktail amplified common side effects and therefore “might have some short-term disadvantages”.

The absence of unambiguous data on the effects of mixing led Italian commentators to harshly criticise the government’s decision and its poor communication on the AstraZeneca jab’s limitations.

Several analysts and politicians also claimed that the media had been sympathetic to Draghi’s government and the Covid-19 commissioner he installed, whereas the former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, would have been “torn to pieces” had the same situation materialised. 

Italy’s decision to set up vaccination “open days” — where people as young as 16 could show up without a booking to be immunised with any vaccine available — also came under fire domestically and abroad.

How would you feel about being inoculated with two doses of different Covid-19 vaccines? Take our poll here.

Chart du jour: Inflation extremes

Line chart of Annual inflation (%) showing Eurozone inflation mostly trends upwards

The European Central Bank’s governing council meets on a hillside in Frankfurt today, with inflation targets one of the big issues on their agenda. Figures released for May showed inflation was on the rise across most of Europe, with Luxembourg recording an increase of 4 per cent. At the opposite end, Greece, hampered by low tourism numbers, is still recording negative inflation.

Norway’s Greens vs Big Oil

A fierce and sometimes surreal controversy has felled Oslo’s entire government, giving a taste of some of the debates that are likely to resurface in national elections in September, writes Richard Milne, FT Nordic and Baltic bureau chief.

The entire centre-left Oslo city council resigned in protest on Wednesday after a vote of no confidence in Green politician Lan Marie Berg, because of her failure to disclose a huge cost overrun in a new water pipeline for Norway’s capital.

Berg is one of the most polarising politicians in Norway, as her outspoken attacks on petrol cars and more have drawn a torrent of criticism, some of it heavily misogynistic and racist.

She is running for Norway’s national parliament in elections on September 13 that the centre-left opposition — of which her Green party is part — are on track to win.

But the controversy surrounding her underscored the difficulties that Norway, western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, is experiencing in working out how to meet its climate obligations.

The International Energy Agency warned last month that there should be no new oil and gas exploration to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C more than pre-industrial levels. But Norway’s main centre-left Labour party and ruling centre-right Conservatives have shown no desire to call time on the country’s oil industry.

The Greens have said they would not support any government that continues with oil exploration, but it is far from clear whether the party will gain enough votes to enter parliament. Many Norwegian voters appear put off by their tough rhetoric, with the Centre party — rivalling Labour as the biggest centre-left group — defending diesel cars popular with their mostly rural supporters.

The surreal aspect of the events in Oslo is that the same centre-left government is likely to be reborn without Berg, who wants to focus on her parliamentary run. That led the Centre party to accuse her of self-indulgence for not simply resigning and sparing the capital the spectacle of high political drama in the midst of a pandemic. It also demonstrated the divisions within Norway’s centre-left and the difficulties they could have in forming a coherent national government should they win in September.

What to watch this weekend

  1. Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic gives a speech today at the College of Europe on the EU’s post-Brexit relations with the UK

  2. The Conference on the Future of Europe holds its first plenary session tomorrow in Strasbourg

Smart reads

  • WFH future: Remote working is here to stay, with a majority of European office workers preferring it to the old way of going in to the office. A policy paper by Bruegel suggests the EU should set up a regulatory framework for hybrid working.

  • Gig workers: Self-employed, in fierce competition for orders, without social protection and subject to algorithmic bias — this is the experience of most delivery service workers in Europe. The Centre for European Policy Studies has published a report about the situation of digital platforms workers in all 27 EU countries over the past five years.

  • Flying green: FT travel editor Tom Robbins writes about his experience onboard the world’s fully electric two-seat plane, which was recently certified for commercial use in the EU market.

  • Axe the G7: A week after the G7 summit in Cornwall, economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that the format is outdated and consistently fails to deliver results — and should therefore be consigned to the history books. (PS)

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Today’s Europe Express team: silvia.borrelli@ft.com, richard.milne@ft.com, david.hindley@ft.com, valentina.pop@ft.com. Follow us on Twitter: @silvia_sb_, @rmilneNordic, @valentinapop.





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The links with Tai that Brussels hopes will bind

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This article is an on-site version of our Trade Secrets newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Monday to Thursday

Hello from Brussels, where the barbed-wire barricades have been cleared away, the buses are back running on their usual routes rather than being diverted around the centre and in general the city has the typical morning-after feeling that follows a visit from the US president. Today’s main piece looks at what Joe Biden’s trip to Brussels actually meant for trade, while Charted waters delves into the nature of the trading relationship between the two jurisdictions.

We want to hear from you. Send any thoughts to trade.secrets@ft.com or email me at alan.beattie@ft.com

Warm words now, but a cold reality awaits

And so the US presidential procession leaves behind, certainly in Brussels trade circles, a profound sense of relief that they are dealing with the personable and constructive Joe Biden and Katherine Tai rather than the abrasive and frequently toxic Donald Trump and Robert Lighthizer.

The big victory was the Airbus-Boeing deal after a mere 17 years of World Trade Organization litigation, not just in itself but for what it said about the possibilities of constructive engagement. Tai, the US trade representative, told a media roundtable in Brussels on Tuesday: “This was a test of our relationship and our ability to build confidence and trust.” However, as Trade Secrets wrote yesterday, it’s not a given that an ad hoc make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach will work between two economies and their aircraft manufacturers, which still have serious problems with each other’s subsidy models.

In fact, if you had to sum up the entire encounter, it was that while leaders and officials luxuriate publicly in a rhetorical hot tub of co-operation and mutual appreciation, they still need to pass through a cold shower of political and legal reality on the way to the changing rooms.

Having China as a rival in common is certainly a useful bonding experience and framing device. The Airbus-Boeing deal was portrayed as a joint response to the rise of aircraft manufacturers in non-market economies. Similarly, the US pledge to fix the “Section 232” national security tariffs on EU steel and aluminium that the Biden administration inherited from Trump was put in the context of global overcapacity driven by Chinese (and others’) steel production.

Still, when it comes to a choice between irritating an ally such as the EU (and possibly breaking international law) and disappointing a politically powerful domestic constituency such as the steel industry, which likes the tariffs, the Biden administration has so far chosen the former

Plans to remove existing transatlantic irritants remain either fragile or aspirational. The Airbus-Boeing subsidies have been suspended but not abolished. Tai said on Tuesday: “We have pivoted to co-operation and collaboration, but it is going to be helpful to have the ability to bring these tariffs back to keep each other honest.” In other words: trust but verify, agree a ceasefire but do not disarm.

On the Section 232s, which are supposed to be fixed by the beginning of December, Tai said: “There are hard questions that we have to face and deep feelings that we’re going to have to address . . . we’re going to push ourselves and our partners in the EU for an outcome that is going to be good for our relationship, for our industries, for our economies, for our workers”. If you believe the zero-sum logic of protectionism, there may be some difficulty in addressing all those goals at once.

There are mysterious nose-tapping “wait and see” noises from both sides about how they might punch enough of a hole in the 232 tariff wall to let some European steel and aluminium into the US without alienating blue-collar workers enough to hand the Midwest to the Republicans. But it’s going to be technically and politically difficult to get that done in less than six months.

As for the WTO itself, certainly the Biden administration pleased the EU and others by moving quickly in its early weeks to unblock the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as director-general. But that wasn’t politically costly: only isolationist headbangers in US politics and business really want to destroy the institution. Asked on Tuesday about the prospects for reviving the WTO’s at-present paralysed appellate body, long disliked by the US steel industry for ruling American antidumping duties illegal, Tai said: “I’m definitely not answering that.”

The goodwill certainly sounds like it’s there. Every utterance on both sides was suffused with the rhetoric of co-operation. Tai even went out of her way to praise the EU for its submission to the WTO on the vaccine IP issue which, unlike the US stance, does not call for a patent waiver.

On that subject, incidentally, while declining to rule out the US itself submitting a negotiating text, she said: “I think that we have a unique ability in the WTO on this issue to be a facilitator, to have credibility with the different sides”. This strengthens our view that the US is far happier to get the good PR from supporting a waiver in principle than to stick its neck out by taking a position in the talks.

Whatever the vibe, the Biden administration is overwhelmingly focused on its domestic economy and maintaining political support, and the EU doesn’t have any votes in the next year’s US midterm elections. We’ll watch the outcomes with interest but without great confidence that everything will get fixed in short order.

Charted waters

We’ve written about the diplomatic relationship, but what about trade between the EU and US itself? As the chart below shows, the two have a tight — and increasingly important — relationship. The EU’s surplus has grown slightly of late, though by a smaller factor than the growth in total values of traded goods.

Column chart showing the EU maintains a healthy trade surplus with the US

In terms of industries, here’s a breakdown of the most valued ones for the EU. The importance of machinery and transport equipment goes some way to explaining why Trump’s threat of tariffs on the car industry did so much to rile lawmakers here. Claire Jones

Bar chart of EU trade balance with the US, by product group (€bn) showing the EU surplus by sector

Trade links

A round-up of stories from the Financial Times this morning. As jurisdictions get tougher on due diligence, lawyers are helping companies clean up their supply chains. We also have an opinion article, which pushes for a global consensus on how to stress test supply chains. This follows calls from the US — wise in our view — to set up a global forum for supply chain resilience. New Zealand wants to agree trade deals with the EU and UK this year in an attempt to become less reliant on China.

Many countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar following the military coup earlier this year. Not so Moscow. Nikkei ($) reports that Russia’s rolling out of the welcome mat for Myanmar’s air force commander was a cue to the junta that its arms will flow to the south-east Asian nation.

Bloomberg ($) has a piece on European car sales failing to recover to pre-pandemic levels. We think this may have something to do with chip-induced supply shortages. In the meantime, the price of used cars has surged. Alan Beattie and Claire Jones

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Biden warns Putin of ‘devastating’ fallout if activist Navalny dies in jail

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Joe Biden warned Vladimir Putin that there would be “devastating” consequences for Russia if opposition activist Alexei Navalny were to die in prison after “open” and “frank” talks aimed at stabilising relations between the two countries.

In their first face-to-face meeting as leaders, the presidents agreed to begin bilateral talks on preventing cyber attacks, restart talks on arms control, restore their ambassadors to their respective embassies and explore a potential exchange of citizens held in each other’s prisons, Putin said.

Billed as a meeting riddled with difficult topics and mutual grievances, Putin told reporters following talks that lasted three and a half hours that there was “no hostility” and the conversation was “efficient . . . and constructive”.

“This was a productive meeting,” Putin said. “It was fruitful. It was to the point, and it took place in an atmosphere that was enabling . . . it gave us glimpses of confidence and hope.” 

Putin praised Biden’s moral qualities and described his approach as pragmatic and well balanced, but said it was “hard to say” whether relations would improve as a result.

Biden told reporters he had handed Putin a list of “certain critical infrastructure [that] should be off limits” from cyber attacks, which comprised 16 entities including the energy sector and water systems.

“I said: ‘How would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines that run from your oilfields?’” Biden said.

But he echoed Putin’s comments about the tone of the meeting, which he said was “good, positive . . . There wasn’t any strident action taken.”

He added that he raised the issue of Navalny’s detention with Putin and what would happen if the activist died in prison. “I made it clear to him the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.”

Navalny was arrested and sentenced to prison recently after returning to Russia. “Human rights is always going to be on the table,” Biden said.

Putin had answered questions about Navalny by saying that he had broken Russian law and knew he would be jailed if he returned to Russia, and claimed that his political activity was seeking to weaken Russia.

The meeting started at about 1.30pm local time with a handshake between the two leaders at the 18th-century Villa La Grange by Lake Geneva, and ended just after 5pm, more than an hour earlier than aides had predicted.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, US president Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov
From left: US secretary of state Antony Blinken, Biden, Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at Villa La Grange © Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Cyber warfare was one of the biggest irritants before the summit, following a major hack of US government agencies last year by Russia-based groups, and alleged disinformation campaigns in the US by Moscow-backed organisations.

Biden had described Putin as a “worthy adversary” ahead of the meeting and said he was going to clarify to the Russian leader “what the red lines are”. Russia was seeking to drive a wedge in transatlantic solidarity and the US was experiencing an increase in malicious cyber activity, Biden added. He promised to respond in kind if necessary.

“We believe cyber space is extraordinarily important in general and in particular for the US, and to the same extent for Russia,” Putin told reporters.

The agreed bilateral government talks on cyber security will be a first for the US and Russia, and have previously been resisted by Washington.

Biden and Putin also grappled with a long list of accusations, complaints and charges against one another, including alleged Russian meddling in US elections, US sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin’s misgivings over Nato military expansion in eastern Europe.

Other difficulties in the relationship are torn-up arms control agreements and war in Ukraine.

Biden travelled to the Swiss city after a week in Europe meeting G7, EU and Nato allies. The response to threats posed by Russia was continually raised in talks with western leaders. The EU warned in a foreign policy paper on Wednesday of a “negative spiral” in EU-Russia relations.

The US president said world leaders had thanked him for holding the summit, which some analysts have criticised as handing Putin a diplomatic victory.

Biden said at the outset of the meeting: “As I said outside, it is always better to meet face-to-face to try to determine where we have mutual interest; co-operate, and where we don’t, establish predictable and rational” relations. He added: “Two great powers.”

Putin said that his ambassador would return to Washington, and the US ambassador would return to Moscow following the talks.

The respective diplomats left their posts earlier in the year after a chain of events prompted by Biden agreeing with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer”.



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