Airline industry past worst point of Covid crisis, says trade body

International Air Transport Association chief calls for simpler travel rules and fewer border restrictions to help sector recover

Last modified on Mon 4 Oct 2021 12.33 EDT

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) has said the airline industry is now over the worst of the Covid pandemic, but urged governments to simplify travel rules and open borders to help the aviation sector operate within a now “endemic” phase of the virus.

Total industry losses are expected to fall to $11.6bn (£8.5bn) in 2022, according to Iata forecasts, which would mean a cumulative loss of just over $200bn in three years as a result of Covid.

Iata’s director general, Willie Walsh, said: “We are past the deepest point of the crisis. While serious issues remain, the path to recovery is coming into view.”

Walsh called for harmonisation of travel restrictions. Given the improved data, knowledge, vaccines and testing, he said, “the idea that the measures we put in place in February 2020 are relevant today is a nonsense”.

He went on: “Travel restrictions are a complex and confusing web of rules with very little consistency among them. And there is little evidence to support ongoing border restrictions and the economic havoc they create.

“Where people are fully vaccinated, they should be allowed to travel without restriction or testing.”

The UK government scrapped its much criticised traffic light system on Monday and eased testing rules for vaccinated travellers, a move that coincided with both the opening of Iata’s global AGM in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

However, the change did not stop Walsh singling out the UK for particular criticism. He said: “Of the 3 million arrivals between February and August, only 42,000 tested positive – or fewer than 250 a day. Meanwhile, the daily case count in the UK is 35,000 and the economy – apart from international travel – is wide open. People should be just as free to travel.”

He said of 6.4m PCR tests taken by UK arrivals, “they sequenced 16,000 – it’s clear nonsense. The data is clear that the industry is safe … The UK passenger locator form has 36 questions; I doubt anyone has looked at the answers to any of those questions. We need a sensible approach.”

He said mask-wearing on board should not remain necessary indefinitely, warning that security measures brought in after the 9/11 terror attacks persisted two decades on, despite technology making them redundant: “We shouldn’t have measures in place a day longer than needed.”

Walsh, the former chief executive at British Airways owner IAG, meanwhile took a swipe at his “old friends” at Heathrow as he denounced suppliers, including airports and air traffic control services around the world, for “outrageous gouging” of airlines with hefty increases in charges to cover their Covid losses.

He said the London airport was “off the chart” with a proposed 90% increase next year. “We all want to put Covid-19 behind us. But placing the financial burden of a crisis of apocalyptic proportions on the back of your customers, just because you can, is a commercial strategy that only a monopoly supplier could dream up.

“It is unacceptable behaviour to benefit from your customers during good times and stick it to them in the bad times.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “After years of falling prices, we are now increasing prices to airlines to make sure that the world-class facilities that we offer them can be financed sustainably. We welcome feedback from our airline partners and will continue to work with them to help the sector to recover.”

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