COVID-19: Airline industry chief lashes out at EU and UK over travel restart

The head of a global aviation body has criticised the UK and EU’s handling of the restart of international travel amid continuing coronavirus restrictions.

Willie Walsh, who headed the parent firm of British Airways IAG until September last year, was speaking in his capacity as director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) following more than a year of COVID-19 disruption to global travel.

It has seen the aviation industry forced to raise cash and shrink fleets at the cost of thousands of jobs, including 13,000 at BA alone, in a bid to ride out the unprecedented turbulence.

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In an interview with Ian King Live, Mr Walsh declared he was “optimistic” about a global recovery over the remainder of the year but agreed Europe was the largest area for concern as traffic struggles to get off the ground amid continuing restrictions.

In the UK, the government’s roadmap aims to allow foreign holidays from 17 May at the earliest under a destination ‘traffic light’ system to minimise the risk of infections being brought back from high-risk countries.

It will be coupled with a virus testing regime for anyone heading abroad.

But Mr Walsh echoed concerns of airline industry executives, including the boss of easyJet, who said that the PCR tests demanded under the rules risked “pushing the cost of travel beyond the means of many people”.

While ministers have pledged to find ways to bring the cost down, MPs have expressed frustration over the lack of clarity and demanded more information on the reopening of the foreign holiday market by the end of the month.

The IATA boss hit out at the EU’s handling of the situation as the bloc’s vaccination programme catches up after a slow start.

“I am disappointed with the way Europe has managed this. I would have expected a more cohesive and integrated response from EU countries, particularly in the post-Brexit environment.

“When you consider freedom of movement is one of the fundamental principles of the EU, that freedom has either been suspended or withdrawn.

“I think it’s a very tough measure and clearly understood when there’s a health crisis but when you see progress being made I think it’s natural and reasonable to believe that the restrictions in place be relaxed to enable people to start exercising the freedom again.”

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