The virtual world vs the real world

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on December 01, 2020

Ashwini Phadnis shares his views on the 75th AGM of the IATA that was held virtually

Covering the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Annual General Meeting 2020, while sitting in at my 'home office', had helped me to decide which of two -  the real world or the virtual world - would be ideal for me.

Agreed, technology has been of immense help during the Covid pandemic, but for me the virtual world can never replace the world as we knew it before the virus struck.

This was the first time in IATA’s 76 year history that the apex trade association for the world’s airlines, was forced to hold a virtual AGM because of a variety of reasons. The most important reasons were border restrictions and Covid fears.

The irony of the first virtual meeting was not lost on anyone. This was IATA’s 75th AGM and after the first meeting in Cuba, the body which represents 290 airlines or 82 per cent of total air traffic was forced to hold its AGM virtually.

In the world before Covid, those who attended and covered the event would look forward to some much deserved celebrations for its 75th anniversary.

Another irony was that IATA, which supports many areas of aviation activity and helps formulate industry policy on critical aviation issues which brings people together, was able to bring all these people together in the virtual world and not in Amsterdam - where the AGM was slated to take place before the pandemic struck.

IATA’s virtual AGM was ironic for another reason too  — the host for the AGM was KLM the royal Dutch airline -- which wanted to host a grand party with aviation industry stalwarts as it turned 100. Alas, this was also not to be and KLM was forced to celebrate its centenary in the virtual world.

Perhaps the biggest irony was that this year, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world, IATA had a number of significant announcements to make. The most significant of these was its projections for the post-Covid aviation world. Its projections present a grim picture. At the virtual AGM, Brian Pearce, Chief Economist, IATA said that the net losses for the global aviation industry were expected to be $ 118.5 billion, up from the $ 84.3 billion forecast in June this year. He added that a net loss of $ 38.7 billion is expected in 2021 as against $15.8 billion forecast in June this year.

“The prospect of losing $38.7 billion next year is nothing to celebrate. We need to get borders safely re-opened without quarantine so that people will fly again. And with airlines expected to bleed cash at least until the fourth quarter of 2021 there is no time to lose,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

The fact that those from the global aviation industry had heard these projections sitting in their home countries, brought home the message of the havoc that Covid has brought on the industry very powerfully.

Like the rest of the world, IATA too is grappling with the losses that the pandemic has led to for the aviation industry and looking for solutions.

For me, attending the virtual meeting did not feel the same as attending an IATA AGM in person. During ‘normal’ times the AGM provided a fantastic opportunity to meet CEOs of international airlines and get diverse opinions about what is happening in the world of aviation.

For example, during the IATA AGM in Dublin in 2016, the news about Qatar Airways being keen to pick up a stake in IndiGo was still fresh (IATA holds its AGM in a different city every year). Attending the gala dinner was Akbar Al Baker, Qatar’s CEO. I tried to catch his attention even as his entourage tried to persuade me to leave him alone. I persisted and it paid off--- “I will meet you after I have finished here,” he finally said. I stood in a corner and waited. True to his word Akbar Al Baker came where I was standing and agreed to answer my questions and I got my story.

At the Dublin AGM, it was also announced that Alexander de Juniac will take over as the next Chief Executive Officer (CEO), IATA. I was keen to profile the man and was able to meet with other French journalists covering the event to put together a more humane profile than what one can get by searching the net. This year, the announcement of Juniac’s retirement and the appointment of Willie Walsh in his place was done virtually. There was no fanfare, no celebrations.

A year earlier, in Miami, the same story had played out again. Air India was on the cusp of joining Star Alliance and the Alliance CEO was there. He dodged me several times, but as he walked back to his hotel from the grand dinner, he saw me following him and agreed to speak provided I did not record the conversation. I, again, got my story on what Air India’s prospects were about joining the global airline alliance. A few months later, Air India became a part of the global Star Alliance which has 26 airlines as its members.

I will never forget the moment at the Vancouver IATA AGM in 2007 when Naresh Goyal, Chairman of the now defunct Jet Airways was in deep conversation with Vijay Mallya (VJM), the promoter of Kingfisher Airlines. That picture was captured by an Indian photo journalist and made a big splash in the Indian media.

Indian journalists in Vancouver also got to see VJM as he was popularly known walking in the lovely weather to his hotel which was close to the venue of the IATA AGM even as a luxury sedan drove slowly behind him

Published on December 01, 2020

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