Supporting our world-class aviation sector

The planned 14 day-quarantine due to be introduced next week, although well intentioned, is unfortunately representative of the approach the Government have taken to supporting our world class aviation sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the MP for Gatwick Airport, I warned in January of the potential devastating impacts that the virus could have on that world class aviation industry.  Sadly, these warnings went largely unanswered. As the virus hit, the devastating impacts became reality and continue to be felt by all of those connected to our aviation industry.

As an island nation, aviation is vital to our economic and social future.  It touches every aspect of our lives, from the freight transported by air, much needed pharmaceutical supplies and the millions of jobs which the industry creates and enables across the economy.

Aviation is not simply part of our transport mix; it is a major economic enabler.  It will be central to restarting our economy as we move out of the lockdown and look to our economic recovery through Brexit and beyond.  Whilst it is of course right that public health concerns remain the Government’s most urgent priority, these must be practical and based on common sense.

Throughout the world, we are beginning to see borders being reopened and the ‘green shoots’ of recovery for vital aviation and tourism industries.  Yet, we in the UK are taking a different approach and disincentivising inbound passengers to the UK.

At the very least, the Government must work with industry to agree and implement ‘air bridges’ to low risk nations as soon as possible. It is perfectly possible to protect us from the risks posed by those nations with high infection rates, whilst also allowing our world class aviation sector to get back to work and help pull the UK economy back from the brink.

This is the wrong policy at the wrong time.  It risks stunting our economic recovery before it has even begun.  But the recovery of the sector is far more complex than this one issue.  We also risk holding back our aviation industry through a lack of broader assistance measures, measures that not only support the industry but also its employees and the businesses that depend on it the length and breadth of the country.

Last week’s announcement on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is a clear example of the need for broader support for aviation.  Whilst the Government must be applauded for the bold action that it took to protect jobs, it must also look again at the longevity of the scheme for those industries who are unlikely to rebound quickly from the devastating impacts of the virus. 

With estimates suggesting that it may take a few years to get international travel figures back up to 2019 levels, and with disruption for our tourism industry expected to last well into next year, removing the protection afforded those employed by the industry and its supply chain too quickly will be devastating.  The Government must look again at this and provide sector specific support for those industries that will take longer to bounce back to pre COVID levels. 

I also urge the Government to work with local government and airports as a priority to provide funding for business rates relief from Whitehall and not simply push the issue back to local authorities, many of whom are at forefront of dealing with COVID-19.

The Chancellor needs also to bring forward a review of Air Passenger Duty.  We cannot expect our aviation industry to recover whilst being burdened by the highest aviation taxes in Europe.  There is also an urgent need to for more funding for the development of alternative fuels and to support the sector in its work to become more sustainable.

The impacts of a failure to support aviation will not just be felt in the sector alone.  But they will reverberate across the economy.  That is why it is vitally important that we all come together to push for a broad package of measures which support our vital aviation industry to play its full role in rebuilding our economy at local, regional and national level.

The consequences of inaction are unthinkable.

Henry Smith
Member of Parliament for Crawley
Chair, Future of Aviation Group