Iain Murray

Strange how fate can turn people away from the careers for which Nature had ordained them into other less fruitful fields.

Take Noel Edmonds. Short of stature with a funny little beard and a knowing, self-congratulatory, nudging sort of humour, he was intended by his maker to be a door-to-door lingerie salesman. As for Vanessa Feltz, her blowsy, shocking pink amplitude is wholly misdirected on TV: she should be running a back street bordello in Bognor. And Andrea O’Neill, who recently filled to overflowing her 15 minutes of fame, what a loss to marketing she was.

Miss O’Neill, a BA stewardess, sprang into the headlines wearing nothing more than her bra, knickers, a fluorescent green vest, and an airline pilot’s hat. Thus attired, she dashed down the steps of a Boeing 737 at Genoa airport, sprinted around the aircraft, and clambered back on board to whistles and shouts from onlooking Italian baggage handlers.

One such witness showed the inability of the human mind to recall precisely what the eye has seen in a few fleeting moments of high excitement. He said the effect of Miss O’Neill’s run was “stunning” and went on to describe her as a “splendid blonde girl aged about 30”. We cannot be sure what he was looking at, but it was certainly not her hair (Miss O’Neill is a brunette) though whatever it was that caught his eye led him to an almost precise assessment of her age (she is 31).

British Airways stewardesses are as a rule demure English girls, not exactly plain, but not especially glamorous either. They tend to be solid, dependable no-nonsense types, the sort who can sober up a drunk with a single disapproving stare. Miss O’Neill, however, is no English rose. Irish-born, she is a big, fine broth of a girl. The sort of girl who, running semi-naked down the inside of a 747, would have Boeing’s designers in Seattle looking anxiously at their calculations of metal fatigue. And demure she is not. According to one colleague, she is reminiscent of PG Wodehouse’s Honoria Glossop, whose laugh was like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.

“Whenever she comes into the room I have to put my head in my hands,” said the unnamed informant.

So much for sketching in the character of the principal player. It is when we come to causes and consequences that the story becomes instructive. According to early reports, Miss O’Neill’s startling intrusion upon the calm of Genoa airport was the forfeit price of losing a bet with her captain. This much was later confirmed. However, it was the nature of the wager that gave a revealing insight into the world of corporate spin and PR.

BA was at first said to be scandalised by reports of the prank. A po-faced spokesman in London twice described her behaviour as “inappropriate”, a word fast gaining ground as the most popular in the lexicon of the mealy-mouthed. By the following day, all that had miraculously changed. BA was reported to be chortling merrily, happy to be the begetter of a little high spirited fun. Better still, the bet was over whether the captain could land the aircraft on time. Deftly, BA sought to turn adversity into triumph.

In a “company-sanctioned statement”, Miss O’Neill said, “BA is in the middle of a massive punctuality drive…so we started to make silly bets and dares about it and I lost.”

A spokesman, possibly the same one who had 24 hours earlier been purse-lipped and disapproving, said, “I guess we ought to take our hats off to her but nothing else for achieving such wonderful exposure of our brilliant time-keeping re- cord. But she should know BA is always on time.”

As if that were not sufficiently PR-oily, BA’s chief executive Robert “Call me Bob” Ayling sent a congratulatory note to Miss O’Neill, which showed that one joke goes a long way in the airline business, “I take my hat off to you, but nothing else,” he wrote. “You brought a smile to our customers’ faces and to mine. Well done with your excellent time-keeping efforts.”

And so BA strove to slither away, sloughing off an embarrassment like an unwanted skin. Dear old Bob, he may be the boss but he can see the funny side of things. Good old BA, you might think it’s a bit starchy, but it’s human after all. Good old time-keeping. Good old Andrea’s knickers. Hats off to them, but nothing else.

But alas for BA, it had spun itself into a Mandelsonian fix. For far from engaging in a kind of stakhanovite bet (“If I cannot produce one ton of coal on my own in an hour, comrade, I shall run naked through the mine shaft with a chamber pot on my head”), Andrea and her captain, while taking a dram or two, had bet on the provenance of a whisky.

Has good ol’ Bob had a laugh about that too? “Well done with your excellent bibulous efforts.”

Some say Andrea’s cards are marked, that she will not be flying much longer. But and here is the good news she read marketing and economics at university in Dublin. It’s never too late. The world of marketing may yet resound to the laughter of this robust, dynamic girl and rejoice in a glimpse of her gusset.


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