MPs receive hundreds of emails a day. Say a dozen or so will be from industry lobby groups in the UK economy. These emails often contain the latest bleak economic assessment of the severe damage the pandemic is doing to their respective sectors: “£X billion lost revenue”; “customers down Y% on a year before”; “indebtedness sky high”.
For some, it can be easy to gloss over aviation headline projections as a tad abstract. For MPs who don’t have a commercial airport in their backyard, these figures could subconsciously feel remote: one day people will travel again to and from Spain, France, Italy or the US, so the thinking goes.
I know MPs with regional airports in their constituency feel a real responsibility to people whose jobs depend on aviation’s long-term survival. I felt the devastating collapse of Flybe cruelly just before the furlough scheme came into place last year. Many local families overnight had no money coming in to pay the bills and put food on the table. The airline was a lifeline for communities in the South West, served by its hard-working and dedicated staff.
A year on, the picture is brighter for my constituents. Exeter Airport was handed a real lifeline after I ran a successful campaign for airports to apply for up to £8 million of financial support. In another boost for aviation in East Devon, the Dublin Aerospace Group has created 100 highly-skilled aircraft maintenance jobs at Exeter Airport.
At the time of writing, however, only one flight took off today from the airport: a short internal flight to Belfast. Regional and City Airports, owners of Bournemouth, Coventry, Exeter and Norwich airports, have lost 90% of passengers since the pandemic took hold. Despite this, these airports are still stepping up to the plate in playing a critical role in supporting our national effort to combat coronavirus, be it providing supplies for the NHS, army, and emergency services or ensuring mail continues to flow. These are PSO routes in all but name.
I’m acutely aware the commercial airline industry will need at least three months to get going again. Pilots may undergo flight simulator training or cabin crew will be brought onto updated contracts and shifts. That’s why a go-date is absolutely crucial.
We cannot have an altogether avoidable “lost summer”. At the moment, opinion polling shows the British public widely want to keep the borders closed with tough custodial penalties for ignoring quarantine. When push comes to shove, however, is this really what should be in place in the summer when cases are fewer, the vaccine rollout continues at pace, and the idea of a break in Europe or further afield takes on a renewed appeal? It’s certainly up for debate and I know which side I’m on.
Last March, a review of Air Passenger Duty was announced as part of a package of measures to support regional connectivity by air. Many MPs welcomed this move to level the playing field to ensure regional airlines weren’t hampered by having to pay UK APD twice. The government should also look at extending the loan CCFF repayment terms for airlines to bring this into closer line with loan repayment schedules for smaller businesses through CBILS.
We need clarity on the government’s position when the Aviation Recovery Plan and Regional Connectivity Review are eventually published. On the Transport Select Committee, we’ve considered the devastating impact of coronavirus on the aviation sector and the government’s response to support the sector and keep passengers flowing – not least travel corridors, passenger refunds, safe travel guidance, employee furlough, redundancies, and financing through the CCFF. But we still await one the key tenets of this recovery through the DfT’s plan, delayed as Ministers grapple with the ever-changing public health picture. It simply can’t come soon enough.
Even if we do hear good news on APD, the benefits of cutting it – an excise tax – will only be felt when planes can return to the skies and bookings come through as companies can choose whether to take the savings themselves or offer even cheaper fares. Either way, it’s essential the government uses all the tools at its disposal to ensure a fair playing field for operators such as Loganair, Blue Islands and Skybus that operate from Exeter Airport. And it’s equally essential that government support is not solely contingent on public confidence to fly, which is out of airlines’ control.
Post pandemic, the government needs to couple-up our levelling-up agenda with the role regional airports play in the wider UK connectivity. The South West is not all cream teas and sandcastles. Exeter Science Park is next to the airport and boasts tech businesses that export to Japan, Exeter University and the Met Office are leading on cutting-edge climate change science research ahead of COP26, and farms across Devon package up their finest produce and sell into US and Asian markets.
The survival of regional aviation is critical. Without it, we’ll be levelling down rather than levelling up the economic growth we need now more than ever, in every corner of the country.
This piece was published in the Airport Operators Association Spring 2021 Magazine. You can read this here, on pages 10 and 11: https://www.aoa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/AOA-Spring-2021-Magaz…