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Boss of BA owner blames ministers for airport disruption

The boss of British Airways owner IAG has joined the industry chorus of criticism against ministers over the causes of airline delays and cancellations.

Chief executive Luis Gallego spoke out against criticism of the sector by transport secretary Grant Shapps amid disruption at airports.

He told the Sunday Times: “The government has to take some accountability for all this and work with us in a constructive way.

“They have said the problem was that we overbooked and didn’t forecast demand, but forecasting demand is one thing we as airlines know how to do. The more difficult thing has been to forecast what the government is going to do.”

Gallego recalled how the ‘traffic light’ system that dictated which countries the UK would accept travellers from “changed, like, ten or 11 times in a few months. Then, before Easter, we left all restrictions suddenly, without any co-ordination.”  

Airlines – and the back-up system of tens of thousands of airport staff, air traffic controllers and ground handlers – cannot be turned on and off at the flick of a switch, he said. All areas have staff shortages.

Addressing Shapps’s attacks on the industry, Gallego added: “We were surprised and we want to explain what is happening, because it is not fair to tell the public that this is all caused by the airlines.

“Can we do it better? For sure. Do we have our own problems? For sure. But everybody needs to understand they can do things better.”

The most recent monthly data – for April – at IAG’s operations shows that in Spain, Vueling had nearly 97% of 2019 capacity up and running, with punctuality at 89%. Meanwhile, Iberia was at 88% capacity and 90% punctuality.

In Ireland, Aer Lingus was operating at 84% capacity, with punctuality at nearly 80%. But in the UK, BA was operating at 67% capacity and 68% punctuality.

Gallego put BA’s poor performance down largely to the unique way in which the British government dealt with the pandemic.

Britain did less to support airlines than most other countries, he said. 

“In Spain, the furlough scheme offered more money for employees and lasted right through until March. The British scheme ended in September 2021, even before Omicron hit.”

Gallego added: “The Irish government put on more restrictions than others, so we needed to cut employment there, but now the recovery is going smoother than it is in the UK.”

The US government covered airlines’ payrolls so fewer staff were fired, while Lufthansa, Air France and others got big state handouts. 

“In Britain, the vaccination programme was very good, but all the changes in [Covid] policies – traffic lights, the various other restrictions – were a nightmare,” he told the newspaper.  

The transport select committee of MPs previously found that the government’s travel rules had been inconsistent, leaving the industry and customers confused.

Gallego and his fellow UK airline bosses want the government to allow EU aviation workers onto the UK visa list and relax the 100-day process that it takes to carry out security vetting on potential employees. 

Currently, airport staff must obtain five years of continuous employment history, which is particularly difficult given that many of these people lost jobs or moved between multiple roles during the pandemic.

The IAG chief also wants the government to ease regulations on the use by airlines of their slots at airports. Under UK rules, if they do not operate 70% of their slots, they can be stripped of them. This in effect forces airlines to run at that capacity even if they do not have the staff to operate the flights, or the passengers to fill them. In Europe, the minimum is 64%.

Airline executives face examination by MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee on Tuesday into the flights chaos. 

Leading industry figures have blamed the government’s stop-start travel policies and lack of support over the past two years for the delays and cancellations.

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