Willie Walsh, the former chief executive of airline group IAG and the current head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) global lobby group, has harshly criticised the Government for its handling of the aviation sector in the pandemic.
Speaking on Wednesday on the fringes of an Irish Tourism Industry Confederation’s (ITIC) annual conference in Croke Park, Mr Walsh described the State’s management of aviation during the crisis as “very poor”.
He criticised politicians for “shutting down borders in an attempt to keep the virus out”.
“It was complete nonsense. It hasn’t worked. Look at the economic damage from closing borders stopping people flying – it really didn’t achieve any benefit. It may have saved a few days but it didn’t stop any of the peaks,” he said.
Mr Walsh said the experience of the past two years on how to handle aviation in a pandemic should be seen as an “expensive lesson” for politicians and industry.
“A lot of jobs were put at risk. You do have to give credit to the Government for the level of financial supports they made available. But shutting borders wasn’t the answer. Hopefully we don’t make the same mistake again [with the next variant or pandemic] because it wasn’t the solution.”
As European governments prepare to raise taxes on flying as part of the effort to combat climate change, Mr Walsh also warned people should not be “conned” by politicians who say taxation is part of the solution to environmental difficulties.
“If the extra tax was ring-fenced and went to support the environmental transition, then fine. But no government has ever done that. You see politicians talking about it but all they want to do is generate extra tax revenues.”
Mr Walsh said the airlines that are members of IATA are seeing a stronger than expected recovery in flying since the pandemic began to weaken.
ITIC said on Wednesday that the tourism industry would recover to about 67 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year, up from a previous projection of about 60 per cent.
"After two traumatic years for Irish tourism, today sees new hope for our most important indigenous industry and biggest regional employer. Recovery can happen more quickly than anticipated, which will be good for the tourism businesses as well as the national economy," said Ruth Andrews, chair of ITIC.
Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism, who also spoke at the conference on Wednesday, said she will push at Cabinet discussions for the industry's special 9 per cent VAT rate to be extended further later this year.