EDITORIAL: Walsh will be a safe pair of hands through the air transport crisis

Willie Walsh
Credit: File photo

IATA will get a new leader in March, it was announced Monday on the eve of the association’s AGM, and it will be Willie Walsh, who retired earlier this year as CEO of British Airways parent International Airline Group (IAG).

Alexandre de Juniac took up the IATA director general and CEO role in September 2016, having retired as chairman of the Air France-KLM Group. It would have been fitting to have announced his retirement from IATA in Amsterdam, with KLM the host airline, but the pandemic saw the 76th AGM first postponed to November and then turned into a virtual event.

De Juniac has steered the global air transport industry through its worst year ever—a crisis unimaginable and unthinkable in the heady fall of 2016 when airlines seemed to have finally made the leap to repeated annual profitability, at least as a collective. And nothing could stop the trend of year-on-year growth in the number of people who took to the air.

Until, of course, it did. COVID-19 brought commercial air travel, especially international flights almost to a halt. The industry that Walsh will represent will be smaller, COVID-weary and much poorer.

Walsh is a safe pair of hands for an industry that will continue to be in crisis mode through 2021 and likely well into 2022. He has a deep and broad understanding of the global air transport industry and has always been interested in its operations and innovators beyond those affecting his own company. He is a former IATA board of governors’ chairman, so he knows the association’s processes and members well.

Of course, he is also yet another male of European descent to lead an organization that represents an industry dominated, at CEO level, by middle-aged men. But a safe pair of hands is an understandable choice. By all accounts, the governors were happy to extend de Juniac’s tenure—it was his choice to step down next year—but if a leadership transition was unavoidable, better a known quantity with an industry pedigree. 

Walsh will not shy away from the tough calls, including restructuring IATA to a scale and cost base that aligns with a pared down industry. He may make get the LCCs better represented—he has always made clear his respect for the LCC business model and he made it an important part of the IAG portfolio with Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level.

Carsten Spohr, chair of the IATA board of governors and CEO of Lufthansa, and himself a highly respected industry leader, said today that Walsh will be “a great director general.”

That greatness will be hard earned; the challenges for IATA and the air transport industry are immense. Walsh, to his credit, is ready to take them on.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.