International Air Transport Association director general Willie Walsh on Wednesday railed against what he called governments’ “kneejerk” reaction to the Omicron variant of the Covid virus, adding special criticism for the UK’s latest round of travel restrictions.
Speaking during a live webcast to update media on IATA’s policy positions, Walsh could not yet offer data on Omicron’s effect on airline traffic, however. “It’s too early to tell,” he said. “Anecdotally, it is impacting on passenger traffic; the restrictions and new testing are creating a lot of confusion in the market.”
Walsh recounted a recent experience of his own while traveling from Ireland to Switzerland during which the airline had to deny boarding to several customers because they didn’t know that Swiss authorities required PCR testing and would not accept results from rapid antigen tests.
“I’ve heard similar stories in other parts of the world where these new requirements for testing have been introduced at short notice and people haven’t been able to comply with them or hadn’t understood that the rules had been changed,” he said. “It’s causing great confusion and suppression of demand.”
Walsh left no doubt about his position on the restrictions imposed in the UK, where the government recently reinstituted a requirement for vaccinated visitors to take a PCR test on the second day after arrival and quarantine until they get their results. “The UK…quite honestly, I’ve given up trying to understand what they do,” said Walsh. “Everything they’ve done has been ridiculed. I don’t think they’ve been measured in their response.”
Walsh insisted that available data does not support the measures in the UK or elsewhere, noting that the positivity rate for passengers flying to the UK stands at 0.8 percent compared with 8.3 percent in the general population.
“It’s clear to me that the travel and airlines, in particular, are being used as the poster child to transmit fear,” he said. “It’s not because there is a threat caused by aviation but it’s merely to be able to demonstrate that there is a threat out there, and by hammering the airline industry they think they’re sending a strong, powerful message to the general population to get them to comply with the restrictions.”
Walsh’s comments come a day after the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Trade Organization called for “intensified efforts” towards vaccine equity and stressed that governments should use restrictions on travel due to new variants of Covid-19 only "as a very last resort," calling them "discriminatory, ineffective, and against the guidance of the World Health Organization.”
According to a joint statement issued by the UN bodies, the pandemic has "pressed pause on trillions of dollars worth of economic activity, affecting millions of livelihoods globally," and with better mitigation strategies and international coordination the air travel and tourism sectors "can be drivers for economic recovery, both in the developed and the developing worlds."