Airlines confident of narrowing losses, lash out at governments

Global airlines hit by the Covid-19 virus appear confident of narrowing their losses and have gone on the offensive at the industry summit in Qatar, criticizing governments and airports for their handling of the pandemic recovery. The cost of government mismanagement was great. “It has destroyed economies, disrupted supply chains, and destroyed jobs,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said at the annual industry meeting of more than 100 airline chiefs.

The airlines themselves have come under fire from governments and consumer groups for the disruption as travel demand resumes faster than expected, but the airline industry sees a common denominator in the government’s uncoordinated responses to the crisis. “There was one virus, but each government came up with its own methodology,” Walsh told the conference. “How can anyone trust such a shameful, uncoordinated, and dangerous response by governments?”

Aside from the painful recovery, airline executives have also focused on issues such as labor shortages at airports. Delays and cancellations of recent flights have been widely blamed on staff shortages as more and more people are giving up work at lower-paying airports due to flexible work practices that have thrived during the pandemic. The head of Qatar Airways’ host company, Akbar al-Baker, said the labor shortage will be a major challenge in the coming months, though he added that his company is “overwhelmed with job requests”.

“People used to work from home,” Al-Baker said at a news conference. “They feel they don’t need to go into an industry that really needs hands-on people,” he said, adding that airport staff shortages could limit the growth of airlines after the crisis. Robin Hayes, chief executive of JetBlue Airways Corp., spoke about the industry’s labor shortage on the same panel in Doha, and said he was confident we would return to a “new normal” within the next two to three years.

Not the correct answer.

Walsh of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) cited research showing that border closures hardly halted the spread of the pandemic while effectively halting international travel and crippling economies. “Closing the border is not the right response to a pandemic,” Walsh said. Governments around the world have provided more than $200 billion in support for airlines to stem bankruptcies during the pandemic, according to UK-based aviation consultancy Ishka.

The International Air Transport Association said airlines expect to cut losses in 2022 and may turn a profit next year as air travel recovers. Walsh said he was “not concerned” about the current supply and demand environment. Walsh said confused government policies had exacerbated the turmoil seen particularly in Europe with the resumption of aviation.

Britain has criticized airlines for their delays and called on the industry to refrain from overbooking flights they cannot operate. Airlines and airports frequently squabble at major industry gatherings, where government interests and jobs are jeopardized. Walsh, who built his reputation as a hitman in clashes with unions and governments as the former chief of British Airways, rallied executives under pressure with an attack on the practice of raising airport fees to make up for lost revenue during the crisis.

“Try it in a competitive business. Dear customer, we are charging double for your coffee today because you couldn’t buy one yesterday. Who would accept that?” he said. Airports said they had been unfairly criticized by airlines and called on them to focus on solving their problems.

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