ALEX BRUMMER: If Transport Secretary focused on damage done to global Britain by closure of Atlantic skies then everyone would be happier
- No-frills carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet are back in the skies – but the same cannot be said for the UK’s long-distance carriers BA and Virgin Atlantic
- The fate of these two British carriers and ease of transatlantic air travel hangs in the balance because the UK government has failed to forge a deal with the US
- Privately BA executives blame poor chemistry between Boris Johnson and Joe Biden for the obstacles
The very notion that travellers returning from Britain’s closest neighbours in France have to quarantine for ten days verges on the bonkers. A recent bizarre ruling was based on an upsurge in the Beta variant on the French territory of Réunion 6,000 miles away in the Indian ocean.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Airline travel to the most popular locations in Europe is becoming a bizarre lottery. Mercurial and unintelligible decision-making by the Transport Department is not just a nightmare for consumers but for airlines too.
The chopping and changing around of restrictions, sky-high prices for approved tests in the UK and the chaos facing passengers at Britain’s principle airports are all impediments to calm travel.
Grounded: Atlantic travel, critical to BA and Virgin’s prosperity and that of global Britain, remains closed
No-frills carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet – with inter-European networks – are back in the skies and the revenues are starting to flow again. But the same cannot be said for the UK’s long-distance carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. As BA chairman Sean Doyle warned in the Mail, 1.5m jobs and Britain’s exports and imports are in danger as global Britain stalls.
Both BA and Virgin took dramatic steps by slashing jobs, cutting costs and raising new capital to stay alive through the pandemic. But cash is draining away because Atlantic travel, critical to their prosperity and that of global Britain, remains closed. It is not just the fate of these great airlines that is at stake but Britain’s trade and services with the United States. America is this country’s biggest single trading partner. Pre-Covid exports of trade and services in 2019 hit a record £106.7billion.
The chief executive of a large UK public company, expanding fast in the US, told me he had given up trying to fly directly from Heathrow to New York because the requirements are too onerous. Instead, he now takes the Eurostar or a flight to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and uses Air France or one of the American transatlantic airlines.
President Biden and President Macron of France used the hospitality of Boris Johnson at the G7 summit in June to agree to open what is now a busy air corridor across the Atlantic. The failure of the British government to negotiate any such deal for the UK has left British Airways spitting tacks and Virgin Atlantic’s future on a knife edge.
Covid-hit BA and Virgin were denied any direct subsidy or bailout by Whitehall. In contrast, the major European carriers Lufthansa and Air France KLM received billions of euros in government support. Similarly, the US carriers United and Delta had access to rescue money from Donald Trump’s administration.
BA has long been the carrier of choice across the Atlantic and in normal times earned 60 per cent of its revenues on this route. BA owner IAG made profits in excess of £2billion a year before the pandemic. It ran up an astonishing loss of £6.4billion in 2020.
Virgin Atlantic’s latest report and accounts warned that the company might struggle to continue as a ‘going concern’ after July 2021.
The fate of these two British carriers and ease of transatlantic air travel hangs in the balance because the UK government has failed to grasp the nettle and forge a deal with the US. Privately BA executives blame poor chemistry between Boris Johnson and Joe Biden for the obstacles.
If Transport Secretary Grant Shapps spent less time fiddling with complex traffic light rules on holiday routes and focused more on the damage done to global Britain by the closure of the Atlantic skies, then everyone would be a great deal happier.