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UK travel-chaos row escalates as IATA chief slams minister Shapps

Published: Updated:

Airline lobbyist Willie Walsh stepped up a war of words over disruption at UK airports, lambasting a government minister who blamed the industry for hundreds of canceled flights.

While conceding that there have been some management missteps amid a faster-than-expected rebound in travel demand, Walsh said Tuesday that UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been “absolutely useless in his approach to the coronavirus crisis.”

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“Since the beginning of the pandemic, as minister of transport, he’s done nothing for the industry,” said Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, at a conference in Paris.

Walsh, a former chief executive officer of British Airways parent IAG SA, said earlier in a panel debate 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 of support during the pandemic.

The prospect of further disruption looms for British travelers as the RMT labor group said it plans to lead a three-day strike of 50,000 rail workers later this month after failing to reach an agreement with employers over pay. The walkout will take place on June 21, 23 and 25, the group said.

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-19 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.

Airport Issues

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 Plc on Wednesday cited “continuing operational issues within the airports sector as a reason for not being able to provide financial guidance for the full year through March 2023, despite strong demand for summer.”

Some airline executives attending the conference acknowledged that current concerns need resolving so that they don’t hamper the much-needed turnaround in the sector.

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 canceled 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 Plc, 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.

Read more: World airline body IATA calls on governments to stimulate travel to help recovery

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