Covid traffic light system could cost UK airports £2.6bn this summer

The UK aviation sector has warned that airports are likely to lose at least £2.6bn this summer as the “chaotic” Covid traffic light system halts international travel.

Airports said the coming months could deal a heavier financial blow than 2020, while airlines called for grants to offset the impact of travel restrictions and protect jobs.

The Airport Operators Association (AOA) said with fewer countries on the green list now than on the travel corridors last summer, owing to the government’s “overly cautious” restrictions, UK hubs were likely to lose even more than the £2.6bn in revenue lost from April to September 2020.

Last year passenger numbers reached just 22% of pre-pandemic levels in August, when the greatest number of travel corridors allowing quarantine-free travel were designated by the government. But only 1.7% of the passengers who flew abroad in 2019 went to destinations on the green list, which exempts travellers from quarantine on return to the UK.

The AOA chief executive, Karen Dee, said: “The government’s overly cautious approach to reopening travel has real-world consequences for the 1.6m jobs in the UK aviation and tourism industries.”

She said unless the government extended the green list and made Covid testing for travellers cheaper, “aviation is in for an extremely difficult summer”.

Dee said if the government decided it could not reopen travel, it should stand ready to give substantial financial support to the aviation and tourism sector, with airports being backed to remain open for critical services.

Tourism chiefs urged on the government to abandon the “failed and damaging” traffic light system, after the sudden removal of Portugal from the green list last week.

Most tourist destinations are now classified amber – meaning travellers would need to quarantine for 10 days on return – and ministers have discouraged people from holidaying in amber list countries, despite legalising it.

The World Travel and Tourism Council said the system had “wreaked havoc” for consumers and businesses and should be scrapped. Virginia Messina, the acting chief executive, said: “Consumers, airlines and the wider travel sector were promised a watchlist and three weeks’ notice of any changes from green to amber, and not just four days.

“What’s needed now is a watertight government policy enabling those who’ve been fully jabbed to travel freely, and not have to self-isolate on their return.”

Labour said the amber list should be scrapped immediately to provide clarity. The shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon, said the traffic light system was chaotic and had resulted in mass confusion over the amber list, which was “gravely damaging for consumer and business confidence”.

In a letter, McMahon urged the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, to publish the data that informed the decisions over classification of countries, and to remove the amber list so it was whether travel was permitted or not.

He said travel restrictions, while necessary, were having a devastating impact on the UK’s aviation sector, the third largest in the world, and the government must take action now with a bespoke package of aid to protect jobs around the country.

McMahon said ministers had “failed to provide a strategic approach to managing our borders and turned their back on the aviation sector at a crucial time”, while Labour had consistently called for a sectoral deal for the whole industry to protect jobs and the supply chain.

UK airlines meanwhile called on the chancellor to finally implement economic support measures with carriers “still in effect unable to trade, due to ongoing UK government restrictions”.

In a letter to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the trade body Airlines UK said carriers had taken on billions of pounds in unsustainable debt and jobs were at risk. The chief executive, Tim Alderslade, said air travel would be closed substantially at least until July, potentially wiping out aviation’s most lucrative season.

He called for targeted support to ensure UK airlines could survive, including 100% furlough support for aviation workers until April 2022, an extension of loan-repayment deadlines and business rates relief, and a new scheme of “restart grants” linked to the impact of travel restrictions.

The government has promised to review the traffic light system on 28 June.

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