Iata head Willie Walsh: Governments must set out plan to lift restrictions

Airline industry body chief also hits out at Covid-19 PCR test profiteering

FILE PHOTO: Willie Walsh Chief Executive of International Airlines Group (IAG) attends the Europe Aviation Summit in Brussels, Belgium March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo
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Governments must give a clear indication as to when they will start easing restrictions to allow travellers to "book with confidence", Willie Walsh, the new head of the International Air Transport Association, said on Tuesday.

Mr Walsh, who became director general of the global airline industry body earlier this month, said the aviation industry needs governments to be clear about their timelines on lifting restrictions to help the sector recover.

Mr Walsh also urged global leaders to cut the cost of PCR testing for Covid-19 to ensure everyone can afford to travel, not just the wealthy.

“If I turn the clock back about six months, most airline CEOs were talking about getting moving again in the second quarter, and we’ve clearly missed that,” Mr Walsh said, at the virtual World Aviation Festival on Tuesday.

“We need governments to set out a plan to give an indication as to when it's likely that they will start relaxing the restrictions in place so that people can start booking with confidence.”

The global aviation industry has been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic, causing what Mr Walsh described as the worst financial crisis for the sector in history.

“We've come through a terrible time, this crisis has lasted much longer, it's deeper than anybody would have expected,” he said.

Iata’s recovery strategy centres on a Travel Pass, a digital health passport that allows travellers to share Covid-19 test and vaccine certificates with airport authorities, airlines and governments.

Mr Walsh said the concept is being tested in airports, with Etihad Airways passengers among the first to trial the pass.

Passengers travelling between Abu Dhabi Airport and Chicago, New York, Washington and Toronto are able to download the app and then book an appointment with an accredited testing facility until the middle of May.

The former British Airways and IAG chief said airports will not be able to function unless the organisation can provide a digital solution.

It's chaos when people are at a check-in counter and looking for their PCR test.

“It’s chaos when people are at a check-in counter and looking for their PCR test and people have to check it,” he said.

“We've got to get a digital solution so that you know people can travel in as seamless a way as possible."

Mr Walsh also hit out at the high cost of PCR testing, accusing some companies of profiteering from the Covid-19 tests and urging the industry to challenge whether PCR tests are necessary.

While some governments had mandated PCR tests, they were then charging VAT on the cost of the testing, Mr Walsh said, a scenario that can make PCR tests more expensive than short flights.

"We're clearly seeing evidence of profiteering by people who have jumped on the testing bandwagon. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

"The cost of testing should be significantly lower than it is. I think we've got to challenge whether PCR testing is necessary."

Mr Walsh criticised the UK in particular, saying passengers that fly in for three-day trips for business or medical reasons must buy a package in advance to do a test on day two and day eight after their arrival in the country, even though they will miss the second test as they have already flown out.

“This is a scam. Everybody should object when we see evidence of people being ripped off,” he said. “We can't have a situation where only the wealthy are in a position to travel. That would be a shame and disgrace.”

Earlier this month Mr Walsh said airlines will challenge suppliers and airports, including Heathrow, that look to cover their pandemic losses by raising charges.

He said moves by some suppliers to increase costs was “total madness in this environment”.

Looking ahead, Mr Walsh said he was optimistic for the future of the aviation sector, in particular the second half of the year when he expects passenger movement to have increased significantly.

“We’re seeing good indications from the domestic markets and that's pretty positive, because it clearly demonstrates that people want to fly and there is very strong demand," he said.

“We’ve witnessed that when restrictions on travel have been relaxed or removed, there's an immediate bounce back. So, it's only a matter of time for the industry to get back to moving at full pace again.”

He pointed to the US and China where domestic travel has returned to the pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019 for the leisure market, however he said business travel is still significantly suppressed.

“It will take time for business travel to recover. Some people have commented that it's not going to get back to where it was because people have embraced technology,” he said.

While technology has enabled the business community to function and do business using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft, Mr Walsh said it was no replacement for being able to “sit down and meet people”.

He expects momentum to build up across the board during the second half of this year.

“We've got to be very optimistic about 2022,” he said.

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