In the midst of a global pandemic, where airlines around the world are learning to adapt to the new normal, Willie Walsh stepped in as leader of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The association is known for developing global standards for airline safety, security, and sustainability, which kept many airlines flying even during COVID-19. As the eighth Director General for the organization, Walsh vowed to bring his own flavor to the position.
During his acceptance speech, Walsh noted that each previous leader brought a different skill that allowed IATA to progress thus far. “My style will be different to what has gone before me,” he said. “I too am a businessman. I too understand how governments operate.”Walsh explained that after 40 years in the aviation business, both as a pilot and as a CEO, he knows what it takes to succeed. “In those 40 years, I have seen first-hand the numerous challenges and significant crises that we have faced and overcome. I have a passion for this industry and a passion for IATA.” He also has served on the IATA Board for 13 years of those years, two of which were as the Chair. With this deep background, he believed that IATA needed to have a stronger voice. So much so that it brought him out of retirement to serve in this leadership position during the global pandemic.
Now, as international borders are starting to open, Walsh joined the FlightPlan III: C-Suite Week event, organized by Inmarsat Aviation, to explain the critical vision for IATA’s future. Walsh has “never been shy about calling out problems and there are a lot of them around at the moment,” he explained to BBC’s Aaron Heslehurst, who hosted the candid conversation to kick off the event. “I have the freedom to say things that airlines CEOs don’t have the freedom to say because they are dependent on support from their government or in some cases the government may be their shareholders.” He aims to use his voice to give the broader aviation industry a “louder voice.”
To have a louder, stronger voice for the community, Walsh noted that at the moment, IATA will focus on helping governments understand that they need to open borders based on the risk that exists. “The risk that we are dealing with today, in terms of this virus, is completely different than the unknown risk we were dealing with 15 months ago when all of this started.” The difference today is that government has “tons of data available to them” so they can better understand the risk against the measures that they put into place, Wash explained. As such, he doesn’t believe the same travel restrictions need to remain in place. “We are now dealing with a virus that we are going to have to learn to deal with. It’s not going away. Zero COVID is not an option. We are just going to have to adapt and live with this virus in exactly the way we live with other viruses.”
Walsh has expressed concern over the government’s averseness to the risk and the attempt of zero-risk. “We assess risk all the time in this business, as a pilot, or as an airline CEO,” Walsh said. “It’s not a static environment; it’s changing all the time. So, you reassess the risks and make sure that you have the measures in place to mitigate against them. It’s the reason why our industry is the safest form of travel —because we do this and it’s our bread and butter.”
Technology and digital transformation have enabled the needed safety and health measures to be put into place so that consumers can continue to fly. From contactless passenger journeys to health screenings, airports and airlines alike embraced new technology solutions. “At IATA we developed a digital solution for airline and airline customers” that could ease the burden of reporting on all of the health requirements to travel. “Most airports today are not designed to have every customer that is flying go through the check-in desk.” If everyone has to go through a check-in desk, to show documentation that they have been approved to travel, as capacity goes up, “airports are going to collapse.” That is why IATA came up with the Travel Pass digital solution, working with partners to enable information to be transferred through a mobile device.
In the end, Walsh believes there is an opportunity to do things better in a different way than before. He noted that he has an innate optimism for the aviation industry and air travel. “I wouldn’t have come out of retirement if I didn’t have a natural passion for it. The reason I’m doing this is that I believe I can still contribute, and I love being a part of this industry.” He concluded that “there is an opportunity to learn from everything we’ve gone through and make sure that we do things better going forward.”