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International Travel Relaunch or a Damp Squib?

March 9, 2021

It was the announcement so many have been waiting for. Early on Friday April 9, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that UK residents could start thinking about booking international travel again. In doing so, he signalled the unveiling of the details of the long-awaited recovery plan for international travel. This plan envisages a regime in which UK nationals will again soon be able to travel abroad for leisure purposes (currently residents are unable to travel abroad without good reason, and risk a £5,000 for non-compliance), albeit constrained to a lesser or greater degree by the need to be tested, quarantine at home or even quarantine in a hotel upon return depending on the destination from which they are returning.

Within hours – although it seemed much quicker than that – industry bodies and operators came forward, expressing concerns about the plan. In particular, disappointments were raised about the continuing uncertainty about which destinations would be classified as green (no quarantine on return), amber (quarantine at home) and red (quarantine in a hotel) – and equally about the cost of the post-return test, which the government mandate insists must be the more costly PCR.

Although the roadmap suggested UK residents may resume international travel on May 17, with a “heavy heart” the boss of Jet2Holidays almost immediately extended the suspension of all of the company’s holidays until June 23, citing uncertainty over which countries his customers would be able to visit in mid-May. easyJet’s Chief Executive Johan Lundgren quickly entered the fray too, saying that the need for passengers coming back to England to take a PCR test was "a blow " and risked "making flying only for the wealthy" as these tests typically cost upwards of £100 per person at present. Next Andrew Flintham, Managing Director of Tui UK and Ireland, said that he was "disappointed about the expensive testing and quarantine measures proposed". Shai Wiess of Virgin Atlantic also questioned the government’s plan based on the costs of a PCR test, suggesting that those traveling from “green” countries should not be subject to tests at all, or only to the cheaper and quicker tests while the more costly PCR tests should only be required for anyone who does test positive.

Adding to the uncertainty of course is that countries will undoubtedly be added to – and removed from – the ‘green’ list. Indeed, the plan says that criteria such as infection rates, the progress of each country’s vaccination program, and the presence of new variants, will dictate which category each destination falls into. There is of course therefore a risk that innocent travellers could leave the UK for a green country, only to find it turns amber or even red while they are away – and if that happens find themselves at the beginning of a time consuming and potentially expensive period of enforced hotel quarantine on their return.

Furthermore, air travel capacity cannot be turned on and off at short notice on a whim – or even as a result of a government diktat. It takes time and is costly to reactivate aircraft that have been dormant for several months, while aircrew and ground staff need recurrent licenses and qualifications refreshing or revalidating in order to resume work. And of course, let’s not forget this isn’t just about UK rules either.

Any would be traveller will also have to meet the entry and testing requirements of the country they want to travel to as well. That in itself puts issues like vaccine passports into play, as well as the need for tests ahead of (and after) travel in both directions – and the UK seems to be far from having a robust mechanism for vaccine passports in place.

Its very clear then that Grant Shapps’ plan for opening up international travel for UK residents again hasn’t received widespread acclaim or support from the industry. Indeed, just addressing one of the concerns, it should be noted that a recent government report suggested the efficacy of the cheap, quick lateral flow tests is 99.9% - maybe even 99.97%.

It is therefore most curious, maybe even incongruous, that returnees will be required to take the more expensive PCR test. In recent days it was announced that the UK was to close to arrivals from countries such as Pakistan, and on Thursday April 8 alone there were 18 flights scheduled from that country as travellers sought to beat the deadline for entering the UK which began on April 9. Leaving aside the question: why would passengers who arrive on April 8 pose any more or less risk in the UK than they would arriving on April 9, the dynamic nature of the red and amber lists seems likely to extend uncertainty and create the need for short notice airlifts to return people to the UK.

Another curious thing about the government’s strategy is that Shapps said he was aware of an even more important need for international travel to resume than holidays – namely enabling UK residents to visit relatives abroad. That is indeed true, but it seems to ignore the fact that flights to countries like Spain don’t make enough money from people just visiting friends or relations – they need business passengers and holiday makers aboard too to cover costs.

So lets not lose sight of the fact that ALL travel needs to resume in order to restore some semblance of normality to the travel trade – and at the moment the proposals seem to have missed their mark as far as leisure travel is concerned.

For other unfortunate reasons, it seems likely the plans for international travel to resume will get relatively little media or public scrutiny over the next few days. The industry will no doubt keep watching the May 17 date, and the publication of the green, amber and red lists that will precede them by around two weeks. What seems almost certain though is that business will slowly start to pick up in dribs and drabs – the more adventurous, risk-tolerant and wealthy first, and the more cautious much later. Sadly, given what Shapps has said today, the travel trade is not going to get the big kickstart it so desperately needs.

© The Aviation Oracle 2021

Images - Kevan James

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