On Tuesday 31 June 2020 the IPT hosted a virtual event assessing the impact of COVID-19 on aviation and what the future holds for the sector. The event was chaired by Lilian Greenwood MP. Lilian is a member of the Transport Select Committee and, before the 2019 election, was its Chair. She was joined by guest speakers Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK and Karen Dee, Chief Executive of the Airport Operators Association (AOA). The meeting was well attended by representatives from the aviation and travel industries, MPs and members of the House of Lords.
Practically every industry has been impacted by the pandemic, resulting in the Government offering previously unseen levels of financial support. The aviation industry has been hit disproportionately hard. This is demonstrated through staggering statistics such as passenger footfall dropping 97%, posting losses predicted to be as high as £16 billion in 2021, and debt ballooning to 92% of expected revenues. During the discussion coronavirus was described as the worst disaster to hit the aviation industry. Worse even than the 2008 financial crisis and the September 11 attacks.
The danger for the sector is that the repercussions of COVID-19 could not only be severe, but long lasting; a quick bounce back is not expected. Jobs have already been cut with many more reported to be on their way. Experts have said passenger numbers may not return to pre-COVID levels for anywhere between one and five years. Some predict they might never return to previous levels.
It is fair to say the outlook for the sector is stark and this was reflected in the mood during the event. Despite the array of difficulties, the sector was praised during the event for the vital role it played in delivering PPE and repatriating citizens during the crisis. Many aviation staff also volunteered to work at the Nightingale hospitals.
It was agreed during the event that sector specific government action will be required if the UK aviation sector is to retain its strategic importance as the third largest in the world. The most common asks were: for the job retention scheme to be extended beyond October for the aviation sector, helping minimise job losses; for business rates to be reduced or, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, waived; and for help with airline and airport charges such as those to NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority.
The announcement of air bridges was welcomed. Many attendees stated their belief that there is demand for flying amongst holiday makers but, understandably, people are nervous. There is a perception that flying is especially high risk for spreading the virus. It was pointed out that this might not necessarily be true as aircraft are fitted with filters helping to keep clean air circulating. Restoring public confidence is important and, going forward, the Government could look to work with industry to create an effective communication strategy to achieve this.
After coronavirus, the biggest challenge for the aviation sector is its environmental impact. Sustainability is an issue that is prominent in public discourse and the coronavirus pandemic has allowed some time for reflection on the issue. All attendees who contributed during the event spoke of their commitment to work towards the 2050 goal of becoming net-zero, in line with the Government’s targets.
Part of the Government’s coronavirus support for the sector could come in the form of a green stimulus, taking positive action on both coronavirus and sustainability jointly. For example, there has been talk of a scrappage scheme that would allow airlines to replace high-polluting aircraft with more sustainable models.