Saturday, June 27, 2009

Absolutely Nothing About Michael Jackson

Famous people - or, as we reflexively call them now, icons - entertain and comfort us. They dazzle in the good times and lift our spirits in bad times, like the old Busby Berkeley musicals did during the Great Depression.

But life goes on outside the spotlight, and sometimes ordinary people have to do extraordinary things just to get by. Consider this week's news that some 7,000 workers at British Airways - which lost $600 million in its most recent fiscal year - have agreed to voluntary paycuts. A reported 800 BA employes even agreed to work for free next month.

One of the latter is the carrier's CEO, Willie Walsh, who said he will work for free in July. Walsh makes a reported $1.2 million a year, so this will not be a hardship for him, but it does help set an example. The 20 percent fall-off in lucrative trans-Atlantic business travel has hit BA especially hard. BA is one of the world's more accomplished airlines, so when a carrier of this quality has to struggle, we are in tough times, indeed.

Things didn't get any easier last weekend for BA - the former UK flag carrier, now privately run - when Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic Airways, a much smaller but nimble rival, suggested in media interviews that BA may not survive the recession. Whether or not this is true, it seemed a comment designed to rattle BA's investors. Mind you, I like Branson. I've interviewed him thrice and believe he has a great sense of fun often absent from commercial aviation, but his remarks were hardly cricket.

I thought about all this as I sat in the passenger lounge at Kuala Lumpur International Airport recently, where a compact, still-boyish looking fellow with short cropped hair sat reading the sports section of the Daily Mail across from me. It was Walsh. I was tempted to attempt an interview, but the lounge seemed basically off-limits. And, besides, the man has troubles enough to contend with. Silently, I went back to my book.

Those of us who fly a lot and write about travel understand that the pain is widespread, not limited to any one carrier. Air India delayed paying some workers for two weeks because of liquidity problems. Qantas, the fine Australian airline, said this week it will defer delivery of 15 previously booked Boeing 787 Dreamliners, also for money reasons. Falling consumer demand and the steadily climbing price of fuel are squeezing airlines around the world.

And the pain, of course, goes well beyond the travel business. Ordinary people, far removed from the spotlight of fame and media frenzies, will build heartfelt, impromptu shrines on the sidewalk, and light guttering candles, even as they lose their jobs.

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