In the Aviation Week webinar interview on 25MAY21 moderated by its Editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker, IATA’s new CEO and Director General, Willie Walsh, had clear words to say about the state of the aviation industry, about the Ryanair flight interception, his move to IATA, and answered a brief cargo question.
Since the call took place just a couple of days after Ryanair flight FR4978 was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet planes on its route from Greece to Lithuania and forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, where a government-critical blogger and his girlfriend were removed from the flight, Karen Walker’s first question was for an IATA statement. “IATA joins with the rest of the aviation community to strongly condemn the actions of the Belarusian government”, Willie Walsh stated, emphatically, illustrating an unprecedented and risk-inducing situation. “Without question, this is completely unacceptable […] and we are calling for a full investigation.” He commended the pilots of the flight who had handled the serious and incredibly difficult situation in such a calm and professional manner, and outlined that not only each airline, but also each individual pilot could decide whether they wished to enter Belarus air space from now on. Safety first at all times.
Covid-19 delayed retirement and changed career course
The conversation moved on to Willie Walsh’s intended retirement from the aviation industry initially, following his time as IAG Group CEO. At the time of announcing his retirement, no one could have predicted what would come just months later and as the pandemic unfolded and the scale of the crisis became clearer, he shifted his original retirement date from the end of MAR20 to SEP20 to help Luis Gallego steer the Group through the rough period. “I would have felt terrible just leaving at the end of MAR20, and just handing over to Luis Gallego with everything that was going on,” Walsh confesses. Ready to retire in SEP20, he was approached regarding the IATA Director General role: “I thought about it for about 24 hours and decided it was something I wanted to do because I love the industry. IATA has an important role to play, and I felt I could make a contribution,” he declared and said he was enjoying the role thus far, despite the dreadful time for the industry, currently.
Get international flying going again!
Karen Walker asked what IATA members’ “top three asks are right now?” “It really is only one ask,” Willie Walsh replied, “and that is ‘get international flying going again!’” Big domestic markets have already almost fully recovered – back to 2019 levels – the crisis remains in the international markets. He related discussions with Irish government officials challenging him about the crisis, where he pointed out: “The crisis we are in now, is not one caused by corona virus, it is actually caused by government restrictions on travel!”
While the decision to shut down was correct and necessary at the start of the pandemic, the last 12 months have seen a great deal of headway in how the virus is being dealt with medically. Vaccines are available and are being distributed, and various prevention and testing measures and processes are in place. The true disruption to the industry over the past few months, is the restriction on freedom of movement imposed by many governments. “The crisis is not because of a global pandemic. It is because of government action!” The same government action that is forcing back manual check-in and immigration controls, with all the paperwork that requires checking these days. This results in long queues which not only increase risk potential but are also completely unfeasible once passenger figures return near to where they once were. “Airports aren’t built for this anymore and will collapse if everyone has to do this,” aside from the passengers’ frustration of returning to manual processes after years of having been used to smooth, digital solutions.
IATA trying to educate and enable politicians to take risks
“Governments typically have very little appetite for risk. It is political risk we are dealing with now. Politicians don’t like being held accountable to decisions that they make, fearing that it might go wrong. They take decisions but reserve the right to reverse out of them. Airlines cannot operate like that. Airline pilots deal with risk every day – now how to assess and mitigate risk, and how to deal with residual risk. We have accountable managers. We are comfortable with accountability. That is how the airline industry operates and that is why it is so safe.”
Walsh explained that IATA is working closely with governments to show them the data and encourage them to take a different approach. “The residual risk today is completely different to 12 months ago.” He criticizes the global response, and in particular the EU for not having adopted a common approach to the pandemic, having failed to prove that it “can function as a united block,” and for having withdrawn one of the fundamental principles it is based on, namely the freedom of movement. What has ensued instead, are confusion and complications as different countries have very varied views on risks, different tolerance levels and a plethora of conflicting measures with regard to validity lengths of PCR tests and where, when and for whom these are applicable, for example. Citing the Irish government, he spoke of a very “repressive approach” to travel where, at its peak, the government mandated hotel quarantine for 71 countries. This has been reduced to 50 meanwhile, but Ireland’s “tolerance for risk is so low and frankly unachievable,” he exclaimed. “We want to get back to a position where individuals can assess the risks themselves, and where it is their own decision whether they want to travel or not.” Based on the experience of current domestic operations, he sees there is no fear of flying and anticipates that demand will come back very quickly, once travel is possible again. “The industry will recover, but it will take time to repair the major damage that has been done in the past months.”
On a positive note, IATA’s Travel Pass as a digital solution to verifying passengers meet the health requirements, and based on its safe database that already includes passport and visa requirement and has been augmented to include health, is starting to meet with acceptance. This will enable a return to online check-in and, it is hoped, digital immigration again, too. So far 8 governments have agreed, and another 30 are in the pipeline.
e-commerce is here to stay – and the rest of cargo?
Answering a single cargo question as to whether the trend of e-commerce linked to the cargo sector was here to stay, Willie Walsh answered, “We’ve all seen how important cargo has been to the industry over the past 12-15 months, and we have the bizarre situation where we are now looking at the incremental costs of passenger, when it used to be the incremental costs of cargo. It has turned completely on its head. I think Network Planners are now looking at their networks in a different way because of the importance of cargo. There is a much greater appreciation for the contribution that cargo makes to our industry and I think that will accelerate the investment that airlines need to make [in digital solutions], but I think that e-commerce is definitely a permanent shift and our industry will respond.”
Encouraging words regarding the cargo sector, and an answer that brings hope regarding a couple of still unanswered questions: Who will take on the IATA Global Head of Cargo role that Glyn Hughes vacated in JAN21 and, more recently, who will replace Andrea Gruber as Head, Special Cargo at International Air Transport Association, when she leaves IATA after 13 years on 11JUN21?
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