BALPA Ups Public Pressure Against UK Over Air Travel Decimation

There were high hopes following the implementation of a Global Travel Taskforce to work on the safe return of air travel in the United Kingdom this spring. Passengers and airlines alike were keeping a close eye on updates ahead of an expected May 17th return of travel following a ban on non-essential trips at the turn of the year. However, there was somewhat of an anticlimax, with not many countries on the “green” list for safer travel, and only a handful of these nations actually feasible to fly to amid restrictions on the other end.

easyJet Southend
The UK did not enforce strict travel bans until the turn of 2021, and flights are still heavily restricted. Photo: Getty Images

Nonetheless, passengers took advantage of what they could, booking tickets to the likes of Iceland and Portugal. The buzz wouldn’t last long, though, as the government soon took Portugal off the green list, leaving vacation options even more limited.

Harsh conditions remain

Compared with the United States, travel across the whole of Europe remains somewhat suppressed. However, the figures in the UK are still worse than its neighbors.

There are only 11 destinations on the green list, which require the least measures to fly back from. Meanwhile, there are over 100 countries on the amber list. Here, passengers must take a COVID-19 test before flying in, pay for two tests to be taken on days two and eight after landing, and quarantine at home for up to 10 days. They may be able to leave the house after five days if they pay for a private test.

This is a costly process, but not as pricy as the requirements for those flying in from red list countries. Here, along with the testing measures, passengers have to pay £1,750 (£~2,400) to stay in a quarantine hotel for at least 10 full days. Notably, all these costs and complications don’t take into account any of the requirements in place in a destination country.

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As a result of all the complexities, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) shares that flights in and out of the UK have fallen by around 73% compared with June 2019. This figure is the highest drop in Europe, with Germany seeing the second-highest collapse at 62%. Furthermore, Manchester and London Gatwick have seen a drop in daily arrivals/departures by approximately 83% and 92%, respectively.

Virgin Atlantic Airways Airbus A350
Despite strong vaccination efforts and an array of antivirus measures in place across industries, new virus cases have pushed back reopening plans. Photo: Getty Images

Wider impact

These significant downturns are having an evident impact on jobs in the air and on the ground. At the beginning of the pandemic, several airline staff found jobs as supermarket workers and delivery drivers. Even now, British Airways is still mulling over dropping Gatwick completely to focus on Heathrow, a move which would also shake up workforces.

Even at Heathrow, things aren’t looking great, with daily arrivals/departures down by 69% compared with 2019. Paris Orly, Vienna, Geneva, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Barcelona are all seeing better balances.

Overall, there have been significant breakthroughs in other regions over the last season. The EU is relaxing air travel guidelines for vaccinated passengers and is even suggesting lifting non-essential travel bans on passengers from several countries including the US, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, and Thailand. Moreover, relaxed intra-EU travel rules would have benefited airlines flying between across union. With the UK leaving the EU, this aspect is no longer an advantage for UK-based carriers.

Worrying times

BALPA Acting General Secretary Brian Strutton spoke about the danger that the aviation industry is facing. He is calling for progress among officials.

“It’s official. The UK aviation industry is the hardest hit in Europe, caused by the UK Governments ludicrously cautious restrictions on international travel. Hapless Ministers give all the appearance of deliberately attacking aviation and tormenting the public with their mixed messages over summer holidays. BALPA is demanding that the UK Government gets its act together and opens the US routes and European holiday travel destinations that it has blocked with no published evidence at all,” Strutton shared in a statement.

“If the country is going to build back better from the pandemic and build new international links with partners for trade and travel, we are going to need a thriving aviation industry. There is no time to hide behind task forces and reviews. This week pilots will be calling on the Government to act now to save jobs by taking a transparent, evidence-based approach to travel restrictions, extending the furlough scheme and helping airlines and airports weather this storm through direct financial support.”

British Airways
BALPA will be taking its message to Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament as part of Travel Day of Action on June 23rd. Photo: Getty Images

The need for change

The message is clear. Pilots and the wider UK aviation industry want the government to allow international travel to return safely in a manageable manner by properly implementing the Global Travel Taskforce. Namely, they want the green list to be expanded with more proportionate restrictions while keeping a strong red list as appropriate to manage variants. Moreover, they want tailored financial support to be brought forward, which includes the extension of furlough support.

British Airways planes parked behind a fence
The aviation industry is desperate to unlock air travel in the United Kingdom. Photo: Getty Images

Altogether, there needs to be another serious look at the long-term recovery of UK travel. Heathrow is even thinking of a plan B if international doesn’t resume, highlighting the severity of the situation. There are glimmers of hope as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with US President Joe Biden to talk about plans of re-enabling travel, giving hope of a UK-US travel corridor. BALPA will be eager for a positive outcome following these talks so that the figure of 860,000 jobs in UK aviation travel and tourism that have been lost won’t continue to significantly rise.

What are your thoughts about the situation of the United Kingdom’s travel industry? How do you feel authorities and airlines should respond amid the crisis? Let us know what you think in the comment section.