Willie Walsh, Director General of the International Air Transport Association, takes part in a panel discussion
Willie Walsh, Director General of the International Air Transport Association, takes part in a panel discussion at the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., October 5, 2021.

A leading airline industry official on Tuesday blasted British politicians for criticizing long airport lines and canceled flights once COVID-19 cases eased and in turn assailed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own response to the pandemic.

"You look at the UK, Boris Johnson, he highlights one of the reasons why he should continue to be prime minister as being the way he handled the pandemic. What a joke. They should have done a hell of a lot better," Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told the Paris Air Forum.

In response, a British Department for Transport spokesperson said the UK was the first country in the G7 to remove all travel restrictions, but its priority was protecting public health and the measures it introduced "bought vital time for the rollout of our successful vaccine programme."

Earlier this month British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told airlines to stop selling tickets for flights they cannot staff, while Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab recently told Sky News that carriers should have recruited more. Both men serve in Johnson's Cabinet.

Johnson survived a confidence vote on Monday.

Walsh said airlines could not have recruited staff earlier this year when British traffic was down and industry feared the prospect of new COVID-19 measures.

"You have the politicians saying airlines should have ramped up sooner. No, they shouldn't," Walsh said. "Airlines would have gone out of business had they done what these idiot politicians are saying they should have done."

The Department for Transport said that aviation, which was provided ?8 billion of support during the pandemic, "must step up recruitment to make sure disruption is kept to a minimum."

A snapback in air travel led to long lines at some British airports, as well as in Amsterdam, Dublin and Toronto, as airport managers struggled to fill jobs.

Walsh, a former British Airways and IAG boss, has attributed congestion to delays in getting clearances for airport staff but said the situation is manageable and limited to some airports and airlines.

Walsh argued aviation should have been more forceful in challenging government-mandated COVID-19 border closures which he said did little to curb the virus.

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