IATA’s Walsh Blasts Government Inaction On UK-U.S. Travel Corridor

U.S. President Joseph Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
U.S. President Joseph Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet before the G7 Summit.
Credit: Toby Melville/WPA pool/Getty Images

IATA chief Willie Walsh sharply criticized the UK prime minister and the U.S. president after hopes that they would announce a reopening of air travel between their countries this week failed to materialize.

On June 10, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden met ahead of the G7 Summit being hosted by the UK June 11-13. A new Atlantic Charter was revealed, which Johnson and Biden said was modeled on the 1941 charter agreed by wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But Walsh, who became IATA director general and CEO in April, dismissed the announcement in a blog as “a grandiose statement” and said Churchill and Roosevelt “would be appalled that their 1941 vision is being associated with such a cautious approach.”

The new charter lists the reopening of UK-U.S. travel as a priority but makes no commitment on time lines. Instead, there will be a travel working group that will “explore options” and “ensure the UK and U.S. closely share thinking and expertise on international travel policy going forward.”

Quarantines and other restrictions essentially prohibit travel between the UK and U.S. despite months of talk about a transatlantic travel corridor. On June 7, the CEOs of major airlines that serve the market held a joint press conference to appeal to Johnson and Biden ahead of the G7 Summit to use the opportunity to announce a reopening. The announcement of a working group fell far below their expectations and may presage the loss of a second consecutive peak summer season even as other countries, like France, are reopening travel to and from America.

Air France on June 11 announced that it will offer service from Paris Charles de Gaulle this summer to 12 U.S. cities, including three daily services to New York JFK and twice-daily service to Los Angeles (LAX).

In contrast, British Airways announced the same day that it was returning thousands of workers to furlough, a week after Portugal—one of only a few countries placed on the UK’s new green travel list in May—was downgraded to amber, prohibiting leisure travel. There are now almost no tourist destinations on the green list.

In his scathing blog, Walsh says, “The new Atlantic Charter offers little in terms of connecting the world. A task force has been set up to look at the opening of U.S.-UK borders. To put some context around this, many EU states already welcome vaccinated passengers without restrictions, while the UK and U.S. (two of the countries with the lowest rates of infection and highest rates of vaccination of any of the major world economies) are unable to make a decision to reopen their borders to each other without appointing a committee to discuss it. It’s a transparently cowardly political move to kick the can down the road.”

Walsh notes that a risk model developed by Airbus estimates that at current infection rates, even if passenger traffic were at 2019 levels, the total risk to the UK from U.S. arrivals, not including the positive impact of vaccination, would be to add 0.3% to the domestic infection rate.

“This should give governments courage that the risk is extremely manageable,” Walsh says. “If governments have different models with different results, we need to see them. With such enormous economic and social consequences at stake—some $273 billion in cross border trade and millions of jobs—it demands a transparent debate.”

Walsh ends his blog with an unusually blunt message to the UK and U.S. governments: “No more talk. No more task forces. Action is what is required. Put the world back on the road to freedom.”

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.