Colin Marshall, 78; revived faltering British Airways

Peter Foley/ Bloomberg News/2003

NEW YORK — Colin Marshall — who played a central role in transforming British Airways from a widely disparaged, deficit-ridden government-run entity into one of the world’s most profitable airlines in the 1980s — died July 5 in London. He was 78.

The cause was cancer.

Before Mr. Marshall joined British Airways, a common joke among its disgruntled customers was that its initials stood for ‘‘bloody awful.’’ Created in 1974 in a merger of British European Airways and the British Overseas Airways Corp., the airline had been deteriorating for several years, and by the ­early 1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to straighten it out.


She assigned that task to John King, the chairman, and he reached out to Mr. Marshall, a widely ­respected marketing specialist who had been chief executive of the Avis car rental company in the United States. King named him the airline’s chief executive in 1983.

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‘’The relationship between King and Marshall became as close as that of father and son,’’ The Daily Mail of London wrote in 2003, with King in the role of no-nonsense, cost-cutting executive and Mr. Marshall in charge of rebuilding the airline’s image and reshaping its customer service.

King slashed the workforce, modernized the fleet, eliminated unprofitable routes, and made marketing agreements with foreign airlines. Mr. Marshall set about trying to attract customers by restoring the morale of the airline’s diminished workforce. At Heathrow Airport, the company’s supervisors had been known for ‘‘balcony management’’ — strolling out of their offices overlooking the check-in counters, then slipping back to their desks rather than helping passengers.

Mr. Marshall created, among other steps, a program called ‘‘Putting People First.’’

‘‘I was anxious to inculcate its principles into the minds of front-line people, those who had direct contact with passengers, including people in customer-service jobs, check-in agents, flight attendants, pilots, and reservations agents,’’ W. Warner Burke and William Trahant quoted him as saying in their 2000 book, ‘‘Business Climate Shifts: Profiles of Change Makers.’’


On-board services, particularly meals and seating, were enhanced. An advertising campaign called British Airways ‘‘the world’s favorite airline.’’

When the company was privatized in 1987 — the year Mr. Marshall was knighted, becoming Sir ­Colin — 94 percent of the employees bought shares.

In 1981, the company reported a loss of nearly $1 billion. By the fiscal year that ended in March 1994, its profits were among the industry’s highest, at $286 million. But s oaring fuel costs took a toll on the company. So did the rise of discount airlines and the company’s failed efforts to merge with American Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Nonetheless, in the fiscal year that ended in March 2003, the year before Mr. Marshall retired, ­British Airways turned a profit of $138 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

By then Mr. Marshall was known in Britain as Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, having been made a life peer in 1998.