John Thomas helped save the US airline industry. Can he steady Virgin Australia?

As far as corporate nicknames go, you could do better than The Bagman.

But John Thomas, Virgin Australia’s second in charge, doesn’t shy away from the moniker and how he earned it.

It was mid-2007, oil was on an unprecedented surge towards $US148 ($A195) a barrel and American airlines were teetering on the edge.

«Oil was going through the roof and basically the North American airline industry was about to go totally bankrupt,» Thomas recalls.

Thomas was working for consulting firm L.E.K. out of Boston advising US airline how to ride out the financial storm unleased by the September 11 attacks.

In response to the oil crisis, Thomas "“ who was born in Wagga Wagga and raised in Sydney "“ masterminded one of the biggest innovations in commercial aviation history: he convinced airlines to make passengers pay to bring checked luggage.

«We were urgently trying to find any mechanism to find more money. That led with bag fees, because that was the quickest way to get money in the door.»

It riled the public, but today Thomas makes no apologies.

«It literally did save the industry,» the 58-year-old says.

After more than 20 years working with the world’s biggest airlines, including seeing United through a post-bankruptcy restructure and negotiating a merger between Delta and Northwest, Thomas returned to Australia in September last year to run the day-to-day operations of Australia’s No.2 airline "“ a move that has sparked strong speculation he will succeed John Borghetti at the top of the business.

«What I saw here was a huge opportunity,» says Thomas, who got his pilots licence at age 17 and still occasionally flys.

«Virgin Australia is an incredible brand, it’s got incredible assets, so how then do you take it to the next level of making it a much more profitable airline?»…

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