DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's air connectivity is likely to shrink by 30% after the imposition of Europe's most "repressive" COVID-19 travel restrictions and may need five years to recover, the head of global industry group IATA Willie Walsh warned on Wednesday.
Walsh was speaking a day after Irish airline Aer Lingus, part of the International Airlines Group he headed until late last year, announced a major restructuring including layoffs to "rebuild financial health."
Ryanair, Ireland's largest airline, has said it will give priority to other European markets in the coming months and base fewer planes in Ireland due to the restrictions.
The Irish government, which has prioritised international connectivity in recent years as a support for its large U.S. multinational sector, advised against most non-essential international travel since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has also levied fines on people travelling to airports and imposed a two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from a number of countries including the United States, Aer Lingus' key market.
"Connectivity will be set back significantly and will take time to recover. I don't see anyway around that to be honest," Walsh, an Irish citizen, told an Irish parliamentary committee.
He said it would take at least until 2024 for the airline capacity coming in and out of Ireland to return to the size it was in 2019 but that it would more likely take until 2026.
"I think this is particularly dangerous for a country like Ireland, where the message being sent is that, you know, we don't want people travelling to the country," he said.
Aer Lingus Chief Executive Lynne Embleton earlier this month complained that the Irish government was being "way more cautious" than any other government in Europe.
Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday told another parliamentary committee that he did not regret the travel restrictions as they contributed to one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in Europe.
The government is to announce its plans for reopening international travel next week but has indicated it is likely to be cautious.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)