British travel chaos row escalates as airline boss slams minister

London's Gatwick Airport saw 52 departures and 30 arrivals scrapped on May 12 after EasyJet axed 80 flights across Europe. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Airline lobbyist Willie Walsh stepped up a war of words over disruption at Britain's airports, lambasting a government 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, Mr Walsh said on Tuesday (June 7) that British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been "absolutely useless" in his approach to the coronavirus crisis.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, as minister of transport, he's done nothing for the industry," said Mr Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, on the sidelines of a conference in Paris.

Mr Walsh, a former chief executive officer of British Airways parent IAG SA, said earlier in a panel debate that Mr 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 (S$13.8 billion) of support during the pandemic.

The prospect of further disruption looms for British travellers as the RMT labour 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.

Mr 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.

Criticised 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 British 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, 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 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 optimising passenger flows to help reduce waiting times.

Mr 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's 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.

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