Henry Smith MP speech in the House of Commons General Debate on the Aviation Sector

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on his new position as aviation Minister.​

I first had the opportunity to raise the potential impact of COVID-19 on the aviation sector back in January. I have the privilege of representing the world’s busiest—or it certainly used to be the world’s busiest—single runway airport, and this issue is extremely important for the wellbeing of my local economy, which has the headquarters of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, easyJet’s largest centre of operations and many others. However, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said, this is also an extremely important industry and sector for the UK economy.

Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

My hon. Friend is a formidable champion of aviation, particularly in West Sussex. Does he agree that an important point in this debate is that the impact affects the entire supply chain, from companies such as Avtrade in Sayers Common in my constituency, which neighbours his, all the way down through companies that provide the food, luggage, baggage handling and maintenance contracts?

Henry Smith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is exactly right: the UK aviation industry is vital to the whole of our national economy, and there is a ripple effect. If, as an island trading nation, aviation is not supported, the negative impact is felt throughout the whole economy. That is why I make no apology for being parochial about Gatwick airport; this is an important issue for the whole British economy.

I am very grateful to right hon. and hon. Friends from both sides of the House for joining me in the Future of Aviation Group, which I am honoured to chair. We have introduced a 10-point plan of recovery and support for the aviation industry. As I have two minutes left, I will highlight just five of those key points.

First, as has been mentioned, testing is essential. Over 30 countries test arrivals for COVID-19. That is important not just for confidence for people travelling again, but for public health confidence. We are at a competitive disadvantage with countries in Europe, such as France, Germany, Italy and Austria, who do test if we are not testing. Further afield, other countries such as the UAE and Singapore test too. It is absolutely vital. Virgin Atlantic tells me that it does not expect business to be at even a quarter of 2019 levels by the end of this year. Testing would help that.

Secondly, we recommend an extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme—the furlough—for aviation sector employees until March 2021, because, effectively, the aviation sector will experience at least three winter seasons as a result of the situation.

Thirdly, business rates relief for airports in England, as has occurred in other parts of the United Kingdom, is extremely important.

Fourthly, I have been arguing for many years for the reduction—indeed, the scrapping—of Air Passenger Duty, but we need a relief for at least the next year to support airlines.

Finally, we need a sustainable regrowth of our aviation industry. In February, the UK airline industry committed to net zero carbon by 2050. We need investment—some £500 million of matched investment—from the Government with industry to develop sustainable aviation fuels. That is the way we recover, for our whole country.​