The boss of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic a “joke” in a stinging attack that included calling Britain’s Transport Secretary “absolutely useless”.
The comments were made by Willie Walsh, former chief executive of British Airways and European airline group IAG, and now director general of a global airline travel association that represents 290 airlines around the world.
“You look at the UK, Boris Johnson, he highlights one of the reasons why he should continue to be prime minister as being the way he handled the pandemic. What a joke. They should have done a hell of a lot better,” Walsh said during a conference in Paris on Wednesday.
Walsh hit out at key figures in the British government after a war of words erupted over who was responsible for chaotic scenes at airports across the UK.
Johnson survived a confidence vote in his premiership earlier this week by members of his own party. The embattled Prime Minister says he got the “big calls” right during the pandemic but the airline industry feels like it was let down by the government and is now taking the blame for issues outside of its control.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has demanded airlines stop selling tickets for flights that airlines know they won’t be able to operate due to staff shortages and has claimed that the industry should have been better prepared for when travel restrictions were lifted.
“You have the politicians saying airlines should have ramped up sooner. No, they shouldn’t,” Walsh slammed back. “Airlines would have gone out of business had they done what these idiot politicians are saying they should have done.”
As head of IAG, Walsh oversaw an attempt to slash thousands of jobs at British Airways at the start of the pandemic. The airline is now one of the worst affected carriers in Europe as it emerges from the pandemic and workers are threatening strike action throughout the summer in a bid to win back pay and conditions that have been decimated.
Years of cost-cutting have also become increasingly obvious as the airline struggles to keep its ageing IT systems up and running.
British Airways is now struggling to recruit new staff in key roles like ground handling and is offering sign-on bonuses and higher annual salaries that have enraged existing employees.
An airline lobby group has blamed post-Brexit immigration rules, as well as security referencing days for the industry’s labour woes but employee unions say these excuses are a “smokescreen”.
Walsh told delegates at Wednesday’s conference that the aviation industry should have been more “forceful” in demanding governments drop travel restrictions because they did little to reduce the global spread of the COVID-19 virus.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Department for Transport said the UK was the first country to drop all travel restrictions and that when they were in force they bought time for the country to roll out life-saving vaccines.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.