European countries must be stopped from imposing "stupid or ineffective" travel restrictions on passengers now that the EU Digital COVID Certificate has officially entered into force across the bloc, says Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary.
EU citizens can obtain the travel pass if they have, at least, one of three elements: proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test or a medical statement showing they have recently recovered from COVID-19. As part of the deal between the EU institutions, national governments committed to lift all travel restrictions, such as quarantine, for pass-holders. However, the regulation leaves the door open for extraordinary restrictions meant to safeguard public health.
This week, Germany restricted entry from Portugal due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant in the country. Portugal is currently the only EU member state on the list, which also includes Russia and the United Kingdom.
Speaking to Euronews on the same day that the certificate becomes a legally-binding instrument for all 27 member states, O'Leary blasted this kind of unilateral decisions as "nonsensical".
"We have to stop in Europe, individual countries imposing stupid or ineffective [restrictions]. We now have the Digital COVID Certificate that allows everybody to arrive, either vaccinated or with a negative PCR, and that should give the Germans the assurance they need.
"[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel's plan, which was to require visitors to Germany from the UK to quarantine for two weeks, made no sense when the UK is the country with the most vaccinated population in Europe. So there's lots of these silly ideas being floated," the CEO said.
"We do need across Europe to welcome UK visitors to the tourism destinations of Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain, because without them, you know, the European Union would be an awful lot poorer."
Ireland, Europe's 'laughing stock'?
O'Leary thinks the introduction of the COVID certificate is a "great development" in comparison with the EU's initial management of the pandemic, which was characterised by strict national lockdowns that "undermined confidence in the free movement of people within the European Union".
But not everybody agrees with the positive assessment. Groups representing the continent’s largest airlines and airports have published a letter warning of "chaos" and long queues for travellers unless EU countries do a better job coordinating the certificate's rollout.
"I've checked with [Ryanair] operations. The first wave of flights this morning went very well. Lots of people across the European Union have their digital certificate and will be welcomed on arrival in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy. Things are getting back to normal," O'Leary remarked, dismissing the concerns expressed in the letter and underlining that border checks fall outside airlines' remit.
"I think there will be teething problems in the first week or two as people get used to the new technology. But once they have it on their mobile phone, it should be a reasonably seamless transition for people travelling within the Schengen area. And I think it's one of the areas where Europe is has done a good job."
The Ryanair chief has harsher words for his home country, Ireland, which is the only member state missing from the COVID certificate system. Ireland has been unable to introduce the system due to a recent cyber attack on the country's Health Service Executive (HSE).
"Even to get back into Ireland, I have to get a negative PCR test despite the fact that I'm vaccinated. So unfortunately, I live in a country that is now the laughing stock of Europe and may completely mismanage the covid recovery."
Court of Auditors' report is 'rubbish'
The travel industry has been one of the hardest hit economic sectors by the coronavirus pandemic. As the virus spread across Europe and countries shut down borders, flights were grounded and flights cancelled, unleashing an avalanche of reimbursement demands from anxious passengers.
Many of Europe's largest carriers, such as Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia and KLM, had to be rescued – in some cases, renationalised – by governments in order to guarantee their survival.
O'Leary has been a vocal critic of these massive injections of public funds, going as far as describing the subsidised airlines as "state aid junkies" and calling on the European Commission to enforce the bloc's state aid rules, which had been relaxed to palliate the pandemic's economic devastation.
"We [Ryanair] made a profit of a billion euros in the year before covid. But last year during covid, we lost 850 million euros. But, you know, we have a strong balance sheet. We have about four billion in cash in the company. So we didn't need to apply for state aid. Unlike Lufthansa and its Brussels Airlines subsidiary, which expects the Belgian government to subsidise it through the crisis," the CEO said.
"We expect to recover our nine million passengers in the next 12 months. And all of that has been done without receiving a penny of state aid from the Belgian government. We asked the question: why is the Belgian government subsidising a Lufthansa subsidiary when Lufthansa should be subsidising its own subsidiaries?," he wonders, stressing that those airlines which "receive taxpayers' money to keep them alive" should be compelled to make reforms, like giving up slots at airports.
A new report by the European Court of Auditors criticises the actions of both governments and airlines during the crisis for failing to protect the rights of passengers, particularly when it comes to reimbursements, which were "put on hold" or processed with "significant delays".
The Court concludes that travellers were treated differently across the EU, despite existing homogeneous regulation at EU level. "Many passengers were not reimbursed; many others had no choice but to accept vouchers," the report reads.
For O'Leary, the report doesn't take into account the physical constrains that airlines experienced during the early stages of the pandemic.
"I would disagree with the European Court of Auditors; they're rewriting history now. People forget that when the covid outbreak took place in March of last year, the airlines were not just grounded: our offices were closed for three months. How exactly are we supposed to process refunds? Nobody was allowed to go to an office and you can't process [refunds]," he said.
"The report from the Court of Auditors is, I think, frankly, rubbish."
On a separate note, O'Leary confirms his company would be "happy" to add a rainbow flag in defence of the LGBT+ community. His comments follow the celebration of Pride month in June as well as controversy regarding a new anti-LGBT law in Hungary, which caused outraged among EU leaders and triggered a cultural war during the Euro 2020 tournament.
"If somebody wants us to put an LGBT flag, we'd be very happy to do so," the Ryanair CEO told Euronews. "We welcome all creeds, genders, whatever your sexual preferences are. As long as you're flying with Ryanair, we don't care."