Willie Walsh: Resetting IATA’s Agenda

Willie Walsh retired from his post as CEO of leading European airline group IAG in September 2021 but in April this year he took on another high profile industry role as Director General of IATA. He does so at a time when the airline industry continues to reel from the effects of the Covid crisis, compounded by the wholly uncoordinated quarantine and travel restrictions imposed by global governments.

There has never been a more critical time when the world’s airlines need to speak with one voice and to exert a stronger influence on Governments. The magnitude of the task cannot be overstated and will take strong and determined leadership. Based on his track record and on my experience meeting and talking with him, I believe Walsh is the right man at the right time.  I spoke with him in an interview for the recent Arabian Travel Market Virtual event.

Retirement on hold

After a 41 year career including CEO roles at Aer Lingus, British Airways and IAG, Walsh tells me he did indeed plan to retire, taking time to sail his boat and enjoy a few pints of Guinness. That was put on hold as Covid intervened, he firstly extended his tenure at IAG and was then approached about the IATA position which, after a short reflection, he decided to accept.

He is no stranger to the organisation, having been actively involved previously, including a stint as chairman of the board of governors. However, his appointment as Director General comes as the demands made on the trade body and its key priorities have shifted tectonically, as a consequence of the Covid crisis.

Making IATA relevant and inclusive

IATA has been a trade body since 1945, but the world in which it exists and the way it must operate and meet its members needs has changed.

Walsh recalls criticism of the organisation some years ago by Tim Clark, President of Emirates, when he said that IATA was an organisation run by the few for the few.  He shares the sentiment and it is something he is looking to change, planning to shift IATA from being bureaucratic and inward looking, to adopting a more outward focus on its members. “I’d like to think that when airlines look at IATA, they see value in what we do, that’s the point I have been making internally, we can’t just expect airlines to join IATA, they will only join if there is something of additional value that we can offer them,” he says.

Recruiting more airlines

A notable absence from membership are the large low cost carriers who account for an increasing share of traffic, particularly in Europe.  He respects and agrees with the views of airlines such as Ryanair, and easyJet and notes that some aspects of IATA’s activities have no relevance to them. Others clearly do, the development of a digital travel passport is one such example.

IATA’s voice would certainly carry much more weight were such airlines to join, in my view Walsh has a good chance of convincing them of the merit.  He believes that IATA can indeed widen its membership by ensuring that what it offers is relevant to every business model and size of airline. “I’m hoping that we can convince more airlines that joining IATA is a good thing”, he told me.

Covid crisis- the immediate preoccupation

Inevitably the focus of IATA right now is in helping airlines tackle the massive challenge which the crisis has dealt them. He points out that there are many encouraging steps as compared to 12 months ago and that “people want to get back to normal, being able to travel is a fundamental part of that”.

He is ready to take on Governments for their lack of adequate engagement with the industry, their draconian zero risk approach to opening borders and to facilitating the resumption of meaningful international air travel.

Amongst governments of which he has already been critical is that of his native Ireland, stating that…

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