Aviation boss warns pandemic lessons have to be heeded

The director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has told its annual conference that the industry remains the “builders of peace and enablers of freedom”, warning that the lessons of COVID have to be learned.

Willie Walsh was speaking at the opening day of the event in Doha as he predicted the aviation sector would return to pre-pandemic business levels.

“Aviation is resilient. And we are rebounding,” he said. “People who longed for the freedom to fly are taking to the skies again—and in growing numbers. By next year, most markets should see traffic reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels.

“Air cargo stood out as a lifeline for vaccines, supply chains, and airline revenues throughout the COVID-19 crisis. And it has grown to be an even more vital contributor to revenues.”

On the pandemic Walsh said: “COVID-19 was catastrophic. It robbed our world of millions of people—family, friends, and colleagues. And the response of governments dismantled connectivity, destroyed jobs and inflicted misery on people, actions justified by politicians around the world that ‘their decisions were driven by the science’. George Bernard Shaw once observed that ‘science never solves a problem without creating ten more’. How true that is.

“But we survived, defying predictions of bankruptcies and failures. It certainly helped that prior to the crisis, the industry’s financial foundations were at their strongest point ever, owing to your leadership.”

“Our industry is now leaner, tougher, and nimbler,” he added. “Our latest analysis shows losses in 2021 close to $42 billion, a huge loss, but down from our earlier estimate of $52 billion. And we now believe that global losses will be cut further, to $9.7 billion this year. Industry-wide profit should be on the horizon in 2023.”

Walsh warned that while the industry was on the right track there were still challenges which could derail that recovery.

He said inflation topped 9.0% in the OECD in April, and the World Bank expects energy prices to soar 50% compared with 2021.

“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has destabilised globalisation, threatened the world’s food supply, and recreated a geopolitical divide not seen since the Cold War,” he added.  “And fixing battered balance sheets carrying debts of $650 billion will be a monumental challenge.

“There is no way to sugar coat the bitter economic and political realities we face. But the desire to travel and the necessity of moving goods are both solid.”

Walsh continued: “COVID-19 will not be the last global pandemic. We all hope for a very long gap before the next one. But it is vital that we learn from the mistakes made in how aviation was shut down and how it is being reopened. When COVID-19 hit, governments closed borders and stopped people from flying. They did not consult with the industry. They did not follow the advice of WHO. Yes, decisions were based on science, but it was political science, not medical or data science.

“There was one virus, but each government invented its own methodology to control what travel remained possible,” he explained. This is documented by Timatic. At the peak of the crisis, it was registering hundreds of changes daily to entry restrictions. How can anybody have confidence in such a shambolic, uncoordinated, and knee-jerk response by governments?

“The cost of government mismanagement was substantial. It devastated economies, disrupted supply chains, and destroyed jobs. The restrictions even hurt people’s health. Our research shows that two thirds of people felt their quality of life deteriorated because of the impacts of travel restrictions. And this is confirmed by WHO data showing a 25% rise in mental health issues.

“So, the first lesson is the wisdom of what WHO said from the beginning. Closing borders is not the right response to a pandemic.”

Looking to the future Walsh said the immediate priority is working together with governments and airports to address capacity issues where they are occurring.

“Let’s be clear, these problems don’t exist everywhere, and solutions are already emerging,” he added.  “The longer-term priority is ensuring that governments work much more closely with airlines in the next crisis—whatever that may be.”

He concluded by saying; “This is a unique time for aviation. We have proven our resilience. And we are rebounding as a safe, sustainable, and diverse industry that is on its way to being profitable.

“The recovery from COVID-19, however, is coincident with a tectonic shift in geopolitics. The Russian invasion and subsequent war in Ukraine have shaken the foundations of globalization to which aviation has contributed so much, and that, in turn, enables so much of our business.

“No war is good. Wars bring human suffering. And the stakes in Ukraine could not be of greater consequence. That is why, even for our apolitical business-focused association, there cannot be any ambiguity in condemning what is happening in Ukraine. I am sure that I speak for all participating in this assembly in calling for peace.

“In the meantime, we continue our critical work of bringing people together.”

“COVID-19 was catastrophic. It robbed our world of millions of people—family, friends, and colleagues. And the response of governments dismantled connectivity, destroyed jobs and inflicted misery on people, actions justified by politicians around the world that ‘their decisions were driven by the science’.

Willie Walsh, IATA

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