UK aviation sector needs urgent support, industry leaders say

Industry leaders have said the UK’s aviation sector urgently needs more government support if it is to survive another lengthy period of travel restrictions, as they warn of a deepening financial crisis over the coming months.

From Monday, international arrivals to the UK will be required to quarantine for 10 days, in an effort to stem the spread of any new coronavirus variants amid a worsening incidence of transmission around the world.

People will also be asked to provide proof of a negative test taken in the previous 72 hours before travelling.

While accepting that the curbs will protect public health, airline chiefs have said they raised the possibility airports may have to temporarily close to save costs, describing the move as “yet another huge blow” for the beleaguered sector.

Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, urged ministers to set out industry-specific plans for how airports will survive financially while the stringent rules are in effect.

“Airports are currently keeping their infrastructure open to support vital and critical services, such as post, freight, emergency services, military and coastguard flights, as well as to help keep the lights in the UK on through supporting flights to offshore oil, gas and wind operations,” she said.

“Airports are doing so while running on empty – there is only so long they can run on fumes before having to close temporarily to preserve their business for the future. Government needs to help cover airports’ operational costs by, for example, urgently providing relief from regulatory, policing, air traffic and business rates costs in the current and the coming tax year.”

Travel corridors were hailed as a lifeline for the aviation industry after being introduced in the summer to permit people to travel to and from certain countries with low Covid-19 case numbers without having to quarantine on their return.

But amid concerns about a new variant identified in Brazil, ministers have sought to calm fears by temporarily suspending them under plans that will be in place until at least 15 February.

Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents all UK registered airlines, expressed his hopes that by Easter the restrictions would be lifted and the industry could start to recover as public demand for holidays will likely be high.

“In terms of the volume of flights that airlines are operating, we are talking about lower than 10% based on where we would normally be,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Easter is a date that we have got in mind as to when we can start to have an aviation sector again because if we don’t start to bring in revenue to the sector, we are going to be in a really difficult place indeed because we have now had pretty much 12 months without any revenue coming in, which is just not sustainable and airlines are effectively staying in business by taking on billions of pounds of debt, which will need to be paid back.”

The government has said it is committed to supporting the travel industry, with Robert Courts, the aviation minister, insisting a “very strong” package of measures is in place to protect the public from any new coronavirus variants.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government was “toughening up already tough requirements” to ensure that new variants do not arrive from abroad while the vaccine is rolled out.

Courts said a total ban on travel to the UK would not be the correct approach, and that pre-departure testing, passenger locator forms and the quarantine period would make the system robust.