Willie Walsh, the veteran Irish aviation executive who will step down as chief executive of International Airlines Group (IAG) next week, is hopeful that air travel can return to its pre-Covid levels by 2023 but accepts that it could take up to seven years for this to be achieved.
"I think it's going to take several years to get back to 2019 levels. The latest prediction is 2024. If you're an optimist you'd say 2023, the pessimists are saying 2027. Personally, I think it's closer to 2023...that's probably a reasonable forecast," Mr Walsh said after receiving the award for Distinguished Leader in Business at the 3rd Annual Irish Times Business Awards.
“Since March.....global aviation has decreased to 5 per cent of what it was in 2019. This is unlike anything we’ve seen before.”
Mr Walsh was critical of the Irish Government's travel restrictions, and insisted it was safe to travel on an aircraft, in spite of a spike in Covid-19 cases across Europe.
“I’ve taken several flights since the outbreak of coronavirus. You are definitely safe provided you take certain precautions, like everybody is doing. I would have no hesitation in getting back on board a plane tomorrow.”
Mr Walsh rejected suggestions from some quarters that Aer Lingus, which is a member of IAG, requires a State bailout to survive the financial hit from Covid.
“I don’t think re-nationalising Aer Lingus is going to eliminate the challenges that it faces from the coronavirus. What we need is for the Government to start facilitating traffic again.”
“Aer Lingus has been in very robust financial shape. I have great confidence in the management team there, and great confidence that working together with the trade unions that we will see a way through this. It went into this crisis in a strong financial position and it has been, in my opinion, the star performer in IAG and I’ve no hesitation in saying that will be the case in the future as well.”
In terms of the biggest achievement in his 41-year career, Mr Walsh said: “Becoming the chairman of Aer Lingus when we succeeded in acquiring Aer Lingus at IAG level [IN 2015]was probably my most enjoyable achievement. When I left Aer Lingus as chief executive I figured that was as high as I could go in the organisation so to go back as chairman was an honour.”
Mr Walsh will turn 60 next year and says he plans to “enjoy” his time off. “I foolishly said many years ago that I would retire at 55. I’m pleased I didn’t but everybody has to retire and now is the right time for me to go.
“I have been approached about some non-executive positions, some of which I find very interesting. So I might do something like that...but I’m going to do some of the things I’ve missed out over the past 20 years especially and enjoy a bit of travel once we get beyond all of these restrictions. Travelling to many of the countries I’ve been too but have never actually seen.”
Mr Walsh said it was a "great honour" to receive The Irish Times award. He is the third recipient, with Mark FitzGerald, chairman of Sherry FitzGerald, having won it in 2018, and Breege Donoghue of Penneys/Primark receiving it in 2019.