IATA Director General Walsh attends interview with Reuters in Doha
Global airline industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh attends an interview with Reuters in Doha, Qatar, June 19, 2022. Picture taken June 19, 2022.

The head of a body representing global airlines hit out at new restrictions at London's Heathrow on Tuesday, saying the airport had under-estimated the speed of the recovery and was focused on profits at the expense of airlines that must now foot the bill.

Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and a former head of Heathrow's biggest operator British Airways (BA), panned moves to tell airlines to restrict the number of seats they sell to try to limit summer disruption.

However, he recognised the measures would give airlines and passengers some opportunity to plan and avoid delays.

"I am surprised Heathrow have not been able to get their act together better than this. Airlines have been predicting stronger traffic than Heathrow has been predicting ... they clearly got it completely wrong," Walsh told Reuters.

He was speaking in an interview after Heathrow said it would cap departing passengers at 100,000 a day this summer to limit delays and cancellations, and urged airlines to stop selling tickets for flights that could be curtailed.

"To tell airlines to stop selling - what a ridiculous thing for an airport to say to an airline," Walsh said.

"Heathrow are trying to maximise the profitability that they get from the airport at the expense of airlines."

Walsh, who delayed his retirement from BA owner IAG in 2020 to deal with the start of the pandemic and was later appointed head of Geneva-based IATA, has long been a fierce critic of Heathrow, one of Europe's busiest international hubs.

He questioned whether the airport was paying the price for underestimating demand as a negotiating tactic with regulators.

"The cynic in me would say that that was playing to their game of trying to fool the CAA when it came to economic regulation, playing down the number of passengers," Walsh said, referring to Britain's Civil Aviation Authority.

"For some time airlines have felt they have been gaming the system and trying to convince the CAA to look at lower passenger forecasts and drive up the average passenger charge to Heathrow's advantage."

He urged the CAA to take this into account in future negotiations. The CAA was not immediately available for comment.

Heathrow rejected Walsh's comments.

"Aviation is under considerable pressure as demand ramps up - at Heathrow we've faced 40 years of growth in just four months and what we need is collaborative working and investment in services to protect passengers, not ill-informed comments from retired airline bosses," a spokesperson said.

The clash comes as the industry is recovering from a travel slump that drove UK traffic down to just 3% of normal levels at the low point in early 2020, according to IATA's estimates.

Walsh said he did not expect the disruption to be repeated next year when airports would have "no excuse" not to be ready. He did not expect European disruption to significantly alter the industry's 2022 outlook, with Asia now starting to recover.