Major airlines in the UK have issued a joint plea to the government for a last-minute rescue of summer holidays, warning that tight restrictions beyond this week could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the sector.
Aviation sources said that failure to open key destinations in the Mediterranean, as well as other major markets like the US and Caribbean, in Thursday’s review of the government’s traffic light system, would deal a body-blow to the industry by effectively enforcing “five winter seasons in a row”.
In a letter to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, airlines also called for the removal of requirements for double-vaccinated arrivals to take expensive PCR tests, which they said amounted to a £100-a-head tax on flights.
The letter came as chancellor Rishi Sunak wrote to the prime minister urging him to ease travel restrictions. In his letter, seen by the Sunday Times, Mr Sunak said that UK border policy was “out of step with our international competitors” and warned restrictions were having a damaging effect on jobs.
The chancellor’s views were echoed by Conservative MP Henry Smith, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the future of aviation, who told The Independent that a “pragmatic and sensible” easing of traffic light restrictions was the right way forward in the light of successful vaccination campaigns in many European countries.
Industry sources warned against the creation of an “amber watchlist” category – potentially including Spain and Italy – of countries of concern where restrictions could be tightened swiftly in the case of an upsurge of coronavirus. The mooted addition to the system would add confusion and deter potential travellers, who would not be willing to take on the risk of a sudden switch to the red list during their holiday, which would result in a £1,750 hotel quarantine on return.
The letter to Mr Shapps said that it was “essential” for much of Europe to be placed on the green list on Thursday, allowing arrivals in the UK to avoid quarantine. The joint letter signed by trade body Airlines UK, alongside chief executives of Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, British Airways, Jet2, Loganair, Ryanair and TUI, warned that – despite the recent decision to admit fully vaccinated EU and US nationals – the UK is still “not on a path to a sustainable recovery of aviation, due to the continued restrictions that are being imposed on international travel”.
With increasingly high levels of vaccine coverage in Europe and the US, the airlines told Mr Shapps: “The world has changed since the inception of the traffic light system, and ‘green status’ should increasingly become a default, given the changing risk equation, and mirroring the approach to domestic restrictions.
“On this basis there is no reason why – and it is essential – much of Europe, including the key volume markets, the US, Caribbean and other major markets, cannot turn green next week in time for the remainder of the summer peak.”
The requirement for a PCR test on arrival from a green list country – and two tests for travellers from the amber zone, which covers most of Europe – was “onerous and increasingly disproportionate” and will have a “huge impact” on UK aviation if allowed to continue.
Calling for a switch to low-cost lateral flow tests, they said: “We have seen no evidence that this regime is necessary for fully-vaccinated travellers or those from green countries, or that effective, cheaper, rapid tests cannot be used from higher-risk destinations.”
The letter warned that the UK was “far behind” other European countries in its aviation sector recovery, with bookings at just 16 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, compared to 60 per cent in Germany and 48 per cent in France.
“Time is fast running out to put the UK’s aviation, travel and tourism industries back on track for a sustainable recovery to protect the millions of jobs they support,” it said. “We cannot afford to stand still over this vital summer period.”
Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade told The Independent that this week was the “last chance saloon” for the sector to salvage something from the disastrous summer of 2021, as the three-weekly review schedule puts the next decision point right at the end of the holiday season.
“Summer is when airlines make their money,” he said. “They lose money in the winter. If we get the right decisions this week, we should have a decent September and perhaps there will be a rush of bookings from people who have been holding on to see what happens with the rest of August.”
There was the potential for redundancies in the tens of thousands if carriers, which have taken on tens of billions of debt, see their last chance of a lucrative summer vanish at exactly the point when they are facing the end of furlough on 30 September, he warned.
More than half of aviation jobs are still furloughed – more than in any other sector – and employers’ contributions to wages for hours not worked were increased from 10 to 20 per cent this weekend.
Loganair chief executive Jonathan Hinkles said that the timing of this week’s review made it critical to move not only sunshine holiday countries like Spain and Greece onto the green list, but also business destinations which will play an important role in keeping up traffic as the autumn arrives.
Mr Hinkles said: “A lot of operators are hoping for salvation from a relatively strong September and October after a wash-out summer. This is the last chance for that. There are reports of a number of airlines having to seek additional financing to secure their balance sheets and their ability to do that will depend heavily on Grant Shapps’s review.”
An unfavourable review, coupled with the loss of furlough, would be “extremely damaging” not only to airlines, but to airports and support services like baggage handling and catering, he said.
Mr Smith, whose Crawley constituency is home to many Gatwick Airport workers, endorsed the airlines’ proposals as “absolutely essential for saving as many jobs in the travel and aviation sectors as possible”.
And he welcomed indications that hub airports like Dubai or Istanbul may soon be exempted from the red listing of the countries where they are situated, allowing long-haul passengers from places like Australia and New Zealand to change planes without incurring a requirement for hotel quarantine on arrival.
“It’s a concept that is worthy of serious exploration, so long as there can be confidence in the segregation of passengers passing through these transit points,” he said.
Agreement is understood to be close on the exemption for hubs, but the Department for Transport refused to discuss the timetable for any decision.
Responding to the airlines’ letter, a DFT spokesperson said: “We have committed to reviewing travel lists every three weeks and any decisions are taken by ministers based on the latest risk assessment from the Joint Biosecurity Committee. We continue to work with the travel industry and private testing providers to further reduce testing costs.”
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “The Tories are in chaos over their border policy with families stuck between the prime minister and the chancellor who are in open disagreement. Rishi Sunak’s latest self-promotion campaign will just create more anxiety for people.
“Rather than brief the Sunday newspapers against each other, the Tories need to get a grip and bring this summer of chaos to an end.”
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “Airlines needs certainty, something the government has repeatedly failed to provide. The last thing the industry needs is another lost summer, which will put thousands of jobs at risk.
“The traffic light system is backed by scientists, and we must do all we can to prevent huge numbers of cases coming in from overseas. The government needs to put in place additional support for airlines so they can get through the next few difficult months.”