EasyJet boss is flying high in the FTSE 100

Marion Dakers
Three years of hard work are paying off for Carolyn McCall

AFTER cheerfully fielding interviews during her airline’s inaugural four-hour flight to Moscow, and greeting dignitaries on the tarmac at Domodedovo airport, EasyJet boss Carolyn McCall whizzes towards the exit wheeling a bright red suitcase that matches her coat.

The only time she slows down is after baggage claim, when she has to stop to fish something out of her case. Her personal assistant, who has been with her since she was in charge at Guardian Media Group, deftly shields her from the view of the nearby press pack, but for the only time on the trip McCall gets visibly ruffled. “Oh god, this’ll be a diary story,” she complains, without giving away enough to make it one.

But minutes later she’s regained her pace, shepherding the group towards the charter buses into central Moscow and making sure none of the group has been left behind. After almost three years steering EasyJet through one of the rockiest periods to hit the aviation sector, it takes more than a short airport delay to slow her down.

McCall praises the “flexible and efficient” airport as the bus hurtles down the motorway, and predicts that Moscow will enjoy a major tourist influx in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“I think a lot of people are curious to come – if the price is right,” she says. “As a leisure destination it’s very different to Europe. Bookings have so far surpassed our expectations.”

EasyJet fought off stiff competition from Virgin Atlantic to win Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) permission to fly from Gatwick to Domodedovo. McCall believes the coup for EasyJet should not have come as a surprise.

“I don’t think surprised was the word – we were very pleased,” she says. “We clearly thought it was worth going for. We were very pleased the CAA thought about Gatwick to give people a choice.”

Virgin Atlantic disagreed: former chief executive Steve Ridgway at the time described the regulations that allow just two UK airlines to fly into Moscow as “bizarre”, and Sir Richard Branson met with Russian officials to ask them to alter the rules.

McCall again insists that her airline was the logical choice. “Why would you underestimate EasyJet? We open up markets, we have been to Jordan, we fly to Marrakesh and that is the same [as Moscow] in terms of time in the air.

“You don’t need a curtain dividing the flight with three hours in the air; people are very happy to not have it there. It doesn’t make sense to underestimate the competition.”

She had never done business in Russia before setting her sights on the Moscow route, and concedes that “we take for granted how easy it is to do business in the EU”. Last week’s launch followed a tricky few months in which the firm raced to win the permissions needed to fly into the Russian city.

EasyJet has pulled off a string of route wins in recent months. Today, the firm begins flights from Milan Linate to Rome, running a service on a route that had been controlled by national carrier Alitalia.

“There’s always something launching,” says McCall, noting that around a quarter of EasyJet’s traffic growth tends to come from new services.

This expansion contrasts with McCall’s first act as chief executive, following her move to an industry in which she had no experience and which was rocked by recession and soaring fuel costs.

She cut back on routes and started targeting business travellers as part of a root and branch review of the firm’s strategy. After a rocky couple of years, her plan seems to be bearing fruit.

Since her arrival, EasyJet has moved from a yearly profit of £54.7m to £317m, on revenues that have risen a third to £3.85bn, and started paying dividends.

She says the financial crisis battering the Eurozone is playing into the hands of EasyJet, which is picking up passengers as they trade down from business class, attracted by McCall’s introduction of allocated seating.

She told reporters that “what we’ve done across Europe, even though the economy has gone into decline or flattened, has demonstrated that our business model succeeds even when times are tough”.

Last week, EasyJet’s soaring share price propelled it into the FTSE 100 for the first time, making McCall one of three female chief executives in the index.

Promotion to the blue-chips will not alter the company’s plans, McCall says. The firm remains on the lookout for new routes, though Moscow and Sharm El Sheikh are likely to be the geographical limits of its network, due to restrictions on working hours and turnaround times.

McCall says she has never resorted to calling ahead to delay a flight if she has been running late – “we pride ourselves on our punctuality” – and that her new status as a blue-chip boss will not alter her operating style.

Her workload remains as hectic as it was in the mid-caps. After talking to City A.M., she spends the rest of the hour-long bus trip catching up. She fields calls from staff across Europe while proofreading corrections for news stories about the firm’s possible aircraft order, the details of which remain under wraps.

With the help of her PA, she works out which emails need a response as she tackles the backlog on her BlackBerry. Then she runs through a list of parties to thank at a speech the next day at the British ambassador’s residence, worried that those who spent months working on the route have not been given enough recognition. All this while fine-tuning plans with her husband and three children for the Easter weekend, and breaking off to point out famous Moscow sites.

The pace, she admits, is “knackering… you need to keep quite fit. All our flights are short-haul, you’re just working the entire time”. She is thrilled to hear there is a rare half-hour break in her schedule once we get to the hotel.

But McCall is never off-duty. When the check-in staff at the Ritz Carlton ask blithely how her flight was, she beams. “Well it was EasyJet, so obviously brilliant,” she says, before wheeling her red suitcase through the lobby to her room.

■ BA in History and Politics from Kent University

■ Master’s degree in Politics from the University of London

■ History teacher at Holland Park School in London, 1982

■ Risk analyst at Costain, 1984

■ Joins the Guardian as a research planner, 1986

■ Promoted to advertising director, 1995, and then commercial director, 1997

■ Promoted to deputy managing director of Guardian Newspapers, 1998, then chief executive, 2000

■ Becomes chief executive of Guardian Media Group, 2006 to 2010

■ Non-executive director of Lloyds TSB, 2008 to 2009

■ Non-executive director of Tesco, 2005 to 2008

■ Non-executive director of New Look, 1999 to 2005

■ OBE for services to women in business, 2008

■ Chief executive of EasyJet, 2010