MAGGIE PAGANO: Airlines bosses reject government travel restrictions

MAGGIE PAGANO: Airlines bosses are highly critical of government travel restrictions, claiming they are too strict and expensive – aviation action plan

The collapse in passenger numbers at Heathrow Airport shows how deeply the airline industry has been devastated by the pandemic.

Less than 4 million people passed through in the first six months of this year – the same as would normally have done in 18 days before Covid.

Even during the worst of the pandemic last year, 22 million people still managed to travel through Europe’s busiest airport, although that was still well below 90 million in 2019.

Test Times: As aviation leaders suggest, replacing shockingly expensive PCR testing with lateral flow testing would be a start

It comes as no surprise, then, that Heathrow has reported pandemic losses of £2.9bn and has been forced to waive its Heathrow Finance covenant for this year as it faces cash flow problems.

Covid continues to wreak havoc at Ryanair. The low-cost airline flew 27.5 million people in the year to March, up from 148.6 million the previous year. It lost a further £234 million in the first three months of the year.

Still, John Holland-Kaye and Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary of Heathrow are a little optimistic about the future.

Heathrow’s boss estimates the number will return to 21 million by the end of the year, while O’Leary predicts 100 million passengers will fly with Ryanair in the coming financial year. But both are highly critical of the government’s travel restrictions, claiming they are too strict and expensive.

Holland-Kaye put it bluntly: ‘Where’s the vaccine dividend?’

It’s a good question: European airspace is open to each other, while they’ve also opened up to the US, which is seen as a low-risk country.

Across the EU, travel is back to half what it was before the pandemic, compared to the UK, which flies at about 10 percent of those levels. EU countries have avoided many of these problems by having a digital Covid certificate, which allows recognition of a person’s vaccination status across the bloc.

This has been far more effective than the UK’s haphazard policy of constantly changing the colors of the traffic lights. Frankly, even considering air travel — especially for vacations — is a huge leap of faith right now, and for most of us, a staycation makes sense.

But for trade, the impact will be huge. Anecdotally, it is said that many business people cross the Channel in one way or another and fly around the world from Europe.

Freight via Heathrow – the UK’s busiest port – has collapsed by 18 percent compared to Frankfurt and Schiphol, which rose last year.

Ministers must put on their skates to prevent more damage. As airline chiefs suggest, replacing the shockingly expensive PCR tests with lateral flow tests and opening up to fully vaccinated travelers from the EU and the US is a first step to get started.

It is also time for the government to be bolder and look at national antibody testing, a move that would help those who choose not to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated.

A recent study published by the journal Nature shows that most of those who have recovered from Covid-19 have bone marrow cells that can produce antibodies for years, if not decades.

Now that’s a valuable test.

China tit-for-tat

What game is the government playing with the latest leaks that it wants to force the giant China General Nuclear (CGN) out of the Sizewell C plant and all other British nuclear projects? It is certain that without CGN’s support and engineering work, EDF would not build a Hinkley or Sizewell (under Osborne’s so-called ‘golden age’, CGN would also be allowed to build its own new factory, Bradwell B, in Essex).

If the Chinese are forced out of Sizewell, it’s more than likely that they will be so offended that CGN will walk away from Hinkley too. That would leave the UK with no future nuclear power, and a lot of egg on faces.

However, if the government can strike a balance in removing CGN from Sizewell but keeping the state giant in Hinkley, that would be a perfect outcome.

But that requires sensitive negotiation skills and for the Chinese to be humble. That could stretch the diplomacy of both partners. Worth trying.

green border

Dutch developer Edge will build a 27-storey office building next to the Shard at London Bridge station.

Work on the skyscraper should begin next spring and be completed by 2025.

Edge promises that the tower will be as green as anything we’ve seen so far, with natural ventilation coming in through every floor.

It’s a big vote of confidence in the city, but it’s a guess we’ll be back in the office.