to repay $110 million in COVID-19 aid after Dutch criticism

An employee works on his computer at the new customers site in Tourcoing

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -U.S. travel firm Booking Holdings Inc. on Friday said it will repay $110 million in assistance it received from governments during the COVID-19 pandemic, following criticism in the Dutch parliament about the company's 2020 executive pay.

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it would repay some $110 million it had received from various governments, including $78 million in the Netherlands, home of its largest subsidiary.

"While the decision to accept this assistance was made during a period when the Company's business was severely impacted and the timing and pace of the recovery of the travel industry was very uncertain, the Company is now encouraged by the improving booking trends," it said.

Dutch politicians had criticised 2020 total compensation for CEO Glenn Fogel of $7.1 million and $24 million for CFO David Goulden. But in a debate on June 2 the country's social affairs minister had said there was no legal basis to demand the support be repaid.

The company defended the payments, which were mostly in the form of stock, as being in line with industry standards and dependant on future performance. Goulden's pay included hiring and retention incentives.

"While we have not recovered fully, we have heard Dutch society, and have taken considerations seriously," spokeswoman Leslie Cafferty said.

"We are thankful to the Dutch government for the support to help us preserve jobs for as long as possible and look forward to continuing to work with the government and our community."

Booking reported an operating loss of $12.5 billion in 2020, down from operating income of $6.6 billion in 2019. The company's stock has recovered ground it lost at the start of the pandemic and reached all-time highs in expectation of a travel rebound this year.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch; editing by David Evans)