Willie Walsh, Director General of IAG., called on the Irish government to end its restrictions on international travel when he addressed the Oireachtas Transport Committee.
Without question this is the most challenging crisis the airline industry has ever faced, and although we have confronted some in the past, nothing has been of this scale. It is important to point out the crisis is ongoing and it would be wrong to say it is a direct result of the global pandemic. What we face today is a crisis that arises from restrictive travel arrangements. To be honest, in the case of Ireland I would describe it as a repressive travel policy that is preventing people from travelling. We can say that with confidence because in markets where restrictions do not apply, we have seen demand recover generally in line with where demand was in 2019, particularly the US domestic market, where travel restrictions do not apply. Traffic there is now back to the levels seen in 2019. In some cases it is beginning to exceed those levels.
We know travel restrictions were introduced for the right reason at the right time but if these restrictions are relaxed or removed, we will see a recovery in demand that will enable airlines to work their way out of this crisis. What we believe is necessary, particularly in the case of Ireland, is that the EU must align policies. We would like to see the EU traffic light system reintroduced and applied consistently across the Union. As a proud Irishman and citizen of Europe, I am disappointed with the way the EU has managed through this crisis, with many different regimes being adopted by governments, which is causing great confusion in the minds of customers and major problems for airline operations. We would also like to see that where people have been vaccinated, travel restrictions would be fully removed.
In addition, the quarantine arrangements put in place in Ireland are particularly repressive and they should be removed and replaced, if necessary, by a risk-based testing system. I was particularly interested in listening to the contribution of Professor Mark Ferguson, who has appeared before this committee, and to read comments from one of the co-authors of the Ferguson report, Professor Paddy Mallon, on testing. There is a case to be made for the use of best-in-class rapid antigen testing in lieu of expensive and difficult PCR requirements.
We also would like to encourage the Irish Government to urgently consider the opening of a travel corridor with the United States. This is of particular importance to the Irish economy and tourism industry in Ireland. There is good reason to be optimistic that this could be possible.
Last but not least, in anticipation of a recovery in passenger numbers, it is critical that our border agencies are ready for such an increase. Airports will not be able to function properly if people arriving in the country or having to depart have to present bits of paper to officials to prove they meet requirements. There must be a digital solution in order that we can continue to process people who have the right qualifications and authorisations to enter the country without creating massive queues at the border.