Border closures, financial support measures, the timing of the recovery and the future of business travel were among the topics discussed during the wide-ranging Airline CEO Insight Debate moderated by CNN’s Richard Quest.
Broadly, the CEO panel declined to take governments to task for their initial actions in closing borders and restricting air travel. Governments “were groping in the dark,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. Aer Lingus CEO Lynn Embleton concurred that governments “were finding their way thru [the pandemic].” However she also called it “a shame” that air travel was vilified during the pandemic as contributing to the spread of COVID.
Turning to government financial support, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr pointed out that “our aviation was supported, which showed the importance of our industry.” Emirates CEO Sir Tim Clark was more blunt: “If it had not been for state intervention … most airlines in this room would be bankrupt today.” Kirby noted that aviation was a “huge part of the humanitarian response” to COVID-19; which would not have been possible without government support of the industry.
Turning to the recovery, CEOs were bullish. Citing the success of vaccine programs, Clark said that probably by the end of next year and certainly in 2023, “this thing will be history.” IndiGo CEO Rono Dutta agreed.
Everyone agreed business travel will return to pre-crisis levels. Kirby predicted business travel will come back “100%.” Looking at the full room, Kirby asked, “How many people would rather be here in person than on Zoom?”