Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important debate on the future of aviation—an issue that the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has put into even starker relief.
I have the privilege of representing Gatwick Airport, which is in my constituency, and it is truly suffering as a result of the pandemic’s impact. I established, and am honoured to chair, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Aviation because the issue has not only had a devastating impact on my local community; it is, as my right hon. Friend said, of vital importance for the whole UK economy. Before the pandemic, aviation accounted for about 4.5% of UK GDP and, as he also said, many hundreds of thousands of people are employed directly in the sector and more widely as well.
Business at Gatwick Airport has reduced by more than 61% since the start of the pandemic. In August—its peak time—when it would normally have more than 5 million throughput passengers, it had fewer than 1 million. Some 40% of jobs have been lost, as they have been at some of the airlines that operate from the airport, such as Virgin Atlantic, which is headquartered in my constituency, and easyJet, whose largest centre of operations is there too.
That is why I very much echo the solutions to deal with this unprecedented challenge. I do not think anybody doubts the sincerity of the Government and the incredible challenge that they face in these unprecedented circumstances. We need to move from quarantine, which was a natural response in the early days, to a testing regime. Our competitors, such as Germany and France and, further afield, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, are testing, which is putting the UK aviation industry and business more widely at a competitive disadvantage.
Last week in the House of Commons, I asked for the global travel taskforce, which the Prime Minister rightly established, to report as soon as possible. I hope that testing will be part of that. Anything that requires a quarantine of more than three days effectively means that travel does not happen in any meaningful sense.
I echo the remarks about Air Passenger Duty. We charge the highest air passenger duty anywhere in the developed world—twice as much as some of our competitors such as Germany. Many of our competitors do not charge any at all. We need that to be reduced or, indeed, scrapped for at least the year to come, and, I would argue, for longer still.
Business rates relief is important. In England, airports should be subject to business rates relief. Gatwick airport is operating only from the north terminal. The south terminal is completely shut down, but it is still paying business rates on that. I echo what the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell have said about building back better and greener. I welcome the UK aviation industry’s commitment before the COVID-19 pandemic to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, and the Jet Zero Council. If we invest in technologies such as hydrogen, we can build back better, greener and more sustainably, which is good for our economy and contributes to the global environmental effort.