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Prepared for take off! Jet2 boss says travel will come roaring back 

That’s not a real tail fin,’ says Steve Heapy, the chief executive of Jet 2, the UK’s second largest tour operator. ‘It’s just a Zoom backdrop.’

He adds: ‘The truth is, I’ve lived in this house for 13 years but I’ve never decorated this bedroom. 

‘I’m too embarrassed to have the real background on because it’s old lady wallpaper. Over 12 months ago I bought two tins of paint but they are still on the floor.’

Grounded: Jet2 boss Steve Heapy (pictured) is disappointed by the Government’s delay in deciding where and when people will be allowed to travel

It’s hard not to warm to a man who readily confesses to the same domestic lapses as the rest of us.

A far more serious procrastination, however, is the Government’s delay in deciding where and when people will be allowed to travel.

Some international travel will resume from May 17 and holidaymakers will be able to visit countries on the ‘green list’ without having to quarantine on their return.

However, Jet 2 has already postponed its restart date until June 24 because of the lack of clarity so far. 

Heapy says: ‘It is not as simple as just start flying again. We have to put pilots through refresher training, recruit seasonal staff, do safety training. It is a huge machine and takes time to get going.

‘The whole industry will take time getting up to speed, it is a big, big job.

‘There is a real friction between industry and the Government because understandably they want to leave it as late as possible to make these decisions.’

One of his fears is that the Government will prioritise the ‘glory routes’, as he calls them, between Heathrow and New York or Heathrow to Singapore.

‘It is not about opening up one or two token business routes – we have to resume the mass travel routes,’ he says.

‘Ordinary people want to go to Palma for a week and relax and drink some nice wine, not a first class ticket to Singapore for a conference.’

Heapy is proud of having promptly refunded more than £1.3billion to customers whose holidays were hit by Covid and Jet 2 has won a string of awards for customer service.

These include recognition from the industry watchdog, the Civil Aviation Authority, as the only UK airline to give customers their money back quickly, which casts a very dim light on the others.

 People want holidays, a bit of sun to recharge the batteries

‘The way some of our competitors have responded, not giving customers refunds, is disgraceful and they have given the industry as a whole a bad reputation,’ Heapy says.

Will the era of cheap easy travel ever return as it was before?

‘Business travel and long haul travel will take longer to recover. But people want holidays, a bit of sun to recharge the batteries.

‘Every time a destination becomes available, or there is a sign we are coming out of lockdown, there is a tsunami of people ready to book.

‘It is all anyone is talking about. As long as the rules for travel are not too onerous or too expensive, it will come roaring back.’

Running Covid-safe flights, he says, is challenging and the hope is the vaccine will be the ‘ultimate failsafe’, adding: ‘We do as much and more as any other form of transport. Once most of the country has been vaccinated the risk will be much, much less. There may be a residual risk of Covid but for the Government to aim for complete eradication is probably unreasonable.

‘People keep talking about the new normal but I liked the old normal, there was nothing wrong with it.’

He says he has an ‘open door’ to politicians and civil servants, and speaks regularly with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Cancellations: Heapy is proud of having promptly refunded more than £1.3bn to customers whose holidays were hit by Covid and Jet 2 has won a string of awards for customer service

Cancellations: Heapy is proud of having promptly refunded more than £1.3bn to customers whose holidays were hit by Covid and Jet 2 has won a string of awards for customer service

‘Obviously there is a frustration on our side that things are moving too slowly but I realise they have to take other things into consideration,’ Heapy says.

Born in Oldham, a former cotton town near Manchester, he left school at 16, despite achieving very good O Levels, because he wanted to dive into the world of work.

‘It was a luxury to stay at school until 16 because in the past people got kicked out aged eleven and sent to work in the mills.’

Married with two grown-up daughters, he now lives in Leigh, between Wigan and Warrington, and commutes to the Jet 2 offices in Leeds.

‘I have been fully vaccinated to get into Yorkshire,’ he quips.

Now aged 52, he suggests that he might grow a fringe ‘like Phil Oakey off The Human League’ to hide the furrows on his brow.

As one of the few chief executives who lives in an ordinary northern town, he finds levelling up ‘quite a patronising phrase’.

‘In Leigh, the town centre is fast-food shops, pound shops, betting shops, charity shops and the rest are boarded up. So I’m keen on the concept but a lot of it is just tokenism and words from people who live in Islington.

‘Geography shouldn’t be a determining factor in where you are in life or where you can get.’

A modest background certainly has not held him back.

After a career including stints at the Co-op Insurance, My Travel and Thomas Cook, he became managing director of Jet 2 Holidays eleven years ago and is now CEO of Jet 2 plc.

What’s his favourite holiday destination?

‘If I just want to do nothing then Cancun but I have a soft spot for Ibiza. Post-Covid, I’ll go wherever opens up first. My last holiday before this was Paphos in Cyprus, ooh, it was lovely.’

The pandemic ‘is far worse than I ever thought it could be. I thought there might be a dip in demand for a few weeks or months but nothing like this’, he admits.

Jet 2, he says, went into the crisis financially strong with around £1billion of cash, but nonetheless has been forced to shed around 500 staff. The company has raised fresh capital through two so-called ‘cashbox placings’.

It received £98million last year from the sale of Fowler Welch, its logistics arm, that had been planned pre-Covid.

The business also took advantage of the Government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) to the tune of £200million.

‘We are in a strong place. We were not heavily geared going into the crisis,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy to sit and criticise the Government but generally they have responded pretty well. 

They haven’t done anything specific to help the airline industry as other countries have, but there isn’t a bottomless pit of money.’

He was waiting a long time, ‘with huge anticipation’ for the global travel task force report which came out in April, which he describes as a ‘step in the right direction’.

More announcements are expected imminently and over the coming weeks but the travel industry remains bruised and nervous.

‘There are questions around vaccinations,’ he says.

‘My mum and dad have had both vaccinations but are treated the same way as someone who has had none.

‘And there are questions on testing, what type, how much will it cost? For a family of four, you could end up paying £600 on tests which is as much as some people take as spending money.

‘All we want to do is fly. Then we will be out of the Government’s hair and the only time we will speak to them is when we pay our tax bill.

‘We are a UK company, we pay all our tax here and we are happy to – I would be over the moon to make a profit and be writing a cheque to HMRC.’

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