Grant Shapps and Willie Walsh
It is a true war of words between Willie Walsh and UK's Department of Transport as to who should front up for causing the travel chaos at airports. Image Credit: Bloomberg

London: The IATA Director-General Willie Walsh stepped up a war of words over disruption at UK airports, lambasting a minister who blamed the industry for hundreds of cancelled flights. While conceding that there have been some management missteps amid a faster-than-expected rebound in travel demand, Walsh said UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been ‘absolutely useless’ in his approach to the coronavirus crisis.

“As minister of transport, he’s done nothing for the industry,” said Walsh at a conference in Paris. The former CEO of British Airways parent IAG, said that Shapps didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to aviation. The Department for Transport said in comments emailed to Bloomberg that the government’s priority had been protecting public health, with travel curbs buying vital time for the rollout of vaccines, and that the sector received 8 billion pounds of support during the pandemic.

Walsh’s remarks come after staff shortages at airports and airlines disrupted journeys for thousands of Britons last week, the busiest period for travel since the Covid outbreak. Criticized by the industry over barriers to recruitment, the government hit back, saying airlines had cut too many jobs during the pandemic, failed to plan for the recovery, and sold too many tickets.

Other European countries

Walsh also downplayed the extent of problems at UK airports and other European hubs including Dublin and Amsterdam Schiphol, describing them as ‘isolated and sporadic’ and saying the issues won’t necessarily carry through to the peak of the summer season over the next few months. Still, European discount carrier Wizz Air Holdings cited ‘continuing operational issues within the airport sector’ as a reason for not being able to provide financial guidance for the full-year through March 2023, despite strong demand for summer.

Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith said he was ‘concerned’ when asked about a staffing crunch at Schiphol, where the group’s Dutch arm recently cancelled as many as 50 flights a day, restricted access to airport terminals and suspended ticket sales. Airport operator Royal Schiphol Group NV has said it’s recruiting more staff and optimizing passenger flows to help reduce waiting times.

Johan Lundgren, Smith’s counterpart at EasyJet, called on the industry to come together to help alleviate pressure on services such as baggage handling and border controls. London Gatwick Airport saw 52 departures and 30 arrivals scrapped on Sunday, many of them operated by EasyJet, which axed 80 flights in total across Europe. North of the capital at the carrier’s Luton base, about 3,000 passengers were diverted following a power failure, The Independent reported.