As group lawyer for Monarch Airlines, Geoffrey Atkinson has watched the unfolding chaos at Heathrow’s new Terminal Five with interest.
With interest rather than dismay because Monarch, a low-cost airline, does not operate from the airport.
“Heathrow is anything but low-cost,” he jokes. “You have to say that somebody has got it spectacularly wrong with Terminal Five. The stories of staff being in the wrong place at the wrong time – that is managerial, which is proven by the fact that two senior people have lost their jobs this week.”
While the piles of lost luggage and lines of angry passengers have been mounting up at Heathrow, Monarch has been quietly going about its business, operating budget flights from Gatwick, Manchester, Luton and Birmingham.
The company’s motto is “low fare, more care” and it likes to see itself as distinct from better-known rivals such as easyJet and Ryanair. One of the oldest independent flight operators in the UK, Monarch Group, also owns the Cosmos package holiday brand and the Avro flight charter company.
Atkinson says: “We try to distinguish ourselves from certain low-cost airlines in terms of customer care. We hope to still provide some of the magic of flying.”
Despite having headed Monarch’s small legal function for the past 15 years, Atkinson was a relative latecomer to the law. Before attending the Chester college of law in the late 1970s he was a professional metallurgist, first at a steelworks in Rotherham, then at a copper smelting facility in Zambia.
After toiling in the heat and dust of Africa, two-day stints behind a desk as a lawyer hold no fears for him.
“I did three back-to-back shifts in a copper smelter in Zambia. That’s work. It was extremely hot and extremely dangerous, but hugely enjoyable and very well paid,” Atkinson recalls.
When opportunities in metallurgy began to dry up he turned to the legal profession, working at firms in Gainsborough and Devon before joining Monarch in 1993.
“I really got to dislike private practice,” he says about the decision to go in-house. “When they needed you, clients acted as if they were the only people on the planet.”
Today, Atkinson prides himself on how little the airline spends on external firms. The majority of work is carried out on behalf of insurers over claims made by holidaymakers or employees.
Clyde & Co is instructed on personal injury claims and occasional regulatory issues, while insurers have used a range of firms for personal injury claims – including Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and Beachcroft. Leeds-based travel boutique MB Law is occasionally called on to handle holiday claims.
But the bulk of corporate, litigation, IP and IT, regulatory, employment and commercial contracts work is dealt with in-house – hence a routine legal spend of under £50,000 a year (excluding claims covered by insurance firms).
Atkinson says: “We do absolutely everything we can in-house. Over the past 15 years I’ve deprived private practice of several million pounds. Putting private practice out of business should be the ambition of every in-house lawyer.”
Atkinson even helps charter holiday companies defend claims made by passengers if Monarch is at fault – free of charge. It’s all part of the service.
He recently won an appeal victory in the district court over a claim made by a family who had faced a 17-and-a-half-hour flight delay.
“We had a completely unheard-of event,” he says. “Three aircraft suffered technical problems in one afternoon and an airport closure prevented us from operating overnight. In the first instance the district judge got the law spectacularly wrong.”
Such a tightly controlled legal budget should come as no surprise in the current climate. Rising fuel costs, calls for ‘green’ taxes on flights and shrinking consumer spending mean that airlines are squeezing costs across the board. Monarch recently axed free towels, free newspapers and free in-flight entertainment from its passenger services.
“The aviation industry is in very interesting times,” Atkinson concedes. “The main challenge facing airlines now is the downturn we are almost certain to experience. But we are well placed.”
Monarch is hoping to lead the way on environmental issues. The company has ordered six of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, designed to be lighter and more fuel-efficient than today’s fleet.
And if green campaigners ever get their way and the airline industry is forced into massive cutbacks, at least Atkinson will have a trade to fall back on. With huge Chinese investment in Zambia and rising global demand for copper, there will always be work in the mines for an experienced metallurgist.
Name: Geoffrey Atkinson
Company: Monarch Airlines
Position: Group lawyer and company secretary
Reporting to: Chief executive Peter Brown
Annual legal spend: £50,000
UK legal capability: Four
Main advisers: Clyde & Co, MB Law, 1 Chancery Lane chambers
Geoffrey Atkinson’s CV
Education: 1953-59: King Edward VII Grammar School, Sheffield
1959-69: Rotherham Polytechnic and Sheffield Polytechnics
1975-76: College of Law, Chester
Employment: 1959-65: Metallurgical apprentice, Steel Peech & Tozer, Rotherham
1965-69: Manager, steel making, Sheffield Twist Drill
1970-75: Metallurgical management, Anglo American, Zambia
1976-78: Trainee, Burton & Dyson, Gainsborough
1978-88: Assistant/partner, Wollcombe Watts & Co, Newton Abbot
1988-91: Group lawyer, Exchange Travel
1991-93: Assistant solicitor, Kingsley Smith & Co
1993-2007: Group lawyer and company secretary, Monarch Group