Willie Walsh: IAG Was Not Expecting A Global Travel Shutdown

Planning for risks is a part of running any business, and even more so for airlines. IATA Director General Willie Walsh noted that airlines would have had such an event firmly on their risk register, and would have contingencies in place to deal with such an event. However, what airlines did not expect was for the world to shut down in quite the way it did.

British Airways Boeing 777-236(ER) G-VIIB
Walsh says IAG, the parent company of British Airways, was prepared for a pandemic, but not the political changes that came with it. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

A pandemic was on everyone’s risk register

The onset of COVID highlighted just how unprepared the world was for a pandemic of this magnitude. Despite the depth of risk planning that inevitably went into government and health service operations, organizations like the UK’s NHS found themselves devoid of even the most basic protective equipment.

And it wasn’t just government departments that were unprepared for COVID. Speaking at today’s FlightPlan interview, IATA Director General and former CEO of IAG, Willie Walsh, said that a pandemic had been on everyone’s risk register, but a symptom of the pandemic had not. He explained,

“Let’s be honest, a global pandemic was on everybody’s risk register. I know that when I was at IAG, it was on our risk register. And, you know, we assessed what would this mean? Now, we never, never anticipated that what it would mean is that the world would shut down.”

British Airways, Airbus A380, Johannesburg
IAG planned for a pandemic but not a global shutdown. Photo: Getty Images

IAG’s risk assessment, Walsh said, revolved around being unable to do as much as it normally would. It expected to be restricted in operations due to staff members being ill or looking after family who were ill. Never, he said, did the airline group anticipate a global shutdown on the scale that we’ve seen over the past 18 months.

The problem now is that, because governments are in control, it’s becoming impossible to unlock travel. For airlines, dealing with risk is an everyday process, as Walsh explained,

“We’ve got to deal with risk all the time … because that’s the nature of our business. All the time we’re assessing risk. It’s not a static environment, it’s changing all the time, so you reassess the risk, you make sure that the measures you have in place are the correct measures to mitigate against that, and that you’re dealing with a residual risk that is acceptable.

“It’s the reason our industry is the safest form of transport out there. This is our bread and butter. Governments and politicians don’t like dealing with risk. So, I can understand why they wanted to adopt a zero-risk approach. But zero risk in itself is creating a risk that I don’t think they anticipated.”

That risk created by the zero-risk approach is impacting everything from economies to mental health. And it’s proving difficult to find a way forward in the face of ever-changing variants and new concerns.

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We’ve been here before

While the COVID pandemic is by far the biggest crisis to have hit aviation in history, it’s not the only crisis the industry has weathered. The problem now is that the mitigations the politicians have put in place to minimize risk have become risks in themselves. And this is a situation the industry has faced before, and continues to deal with today.

Walsh reminisced about the liquids risk that was presented in around 2006. Following the British police’s foiling of a terrorist plot that saw terrorists smuggling explosives in soft drinks bottles, it became forbidden for passengers to bring more than 100ml of liquids on their flight.

Willie Walsh: IAG Was Not Expecting A Global Travel Shutdown
Liquid limits. Photo: Gatwick Airport

To this day, we all endure the ritual unpacking of hand luggage and depositing of tiny bottles of liquids in clear plastic bags on every flight we take. Walsh says that this is no longer necessary, noting,

“The technology exists to be able to do all of this, to test everything, leaving everything in your bag. The equipment is there, and it’s been there for years. But because it was introduced politically, the politicians don’t want to remove this, because they don’t like dealing with risk. The risk environment for leaving liquids in your bag today is completely different to what it was in 2007. And yet, we’re operating with the same mitigating actions. They are not required.”

Smiths detection CT scanner
Technology exists to detect explosives in bags without removing liquids from luggage, but it’s not widely used. Photo: Smiths Detection

The problem with the liquids policy is that it was easy to implement and difficult to remove. It’s a stark parallel with the current situation, where border restrictions were put in place. Removing those restrictions, regardless of what the science says, is seen to be too much of a risk. And so, the governments continue to block our movements.

Zero risk is not feasible

The overarching message that the IATA boss wants to drive home today is that a no-risk strategy is not going to work. The world needs to learn to live with COVID, and to allow people to make their own individual risk assessments about whether they travel and where they go. He said,

“The problem we see today is that governments are effectively putting in place the same measures to mitigate the risk with tonnes of data available to them… that they put in place, quite understandably, when we were dealing with an unknown. In the UK it was all about we need to save lives, protect the NHS – we’ve largely done that. We’re now dealing with a virus that we’re going to have to learn to live with, it’s not going away.

“Zero COVID is not an option. I’m not a scientist, but listening to anybody who has spoken about this, with any scientific background has made clear that we’re just going to have to adapt and live with this virus in exactly the same way as we live with other viruses.”

Walsh believes we need to learn to live with COVID. Photo: SITA

During COVID, everyone’s freedom to move was taken away from them. Walsh expressed his disbelief that it was actually illegal to travel in some countries, something he never thought he would see in his lifetime. But now, he believes there is enough data available that people should have their freedoms restored because today, 506 days after the first COVID case was discovered in the UK, the situation is completely different.

You can hear from more C-Suite speakers at this week’s #FlightPlan event, taking place every day at 13:00 London time. Registration is free, and still to come this week are speakers including Tony Fernandes, Scott Kirby and Akbar Al Baker. Visit the site to find out more.