The Scottish Affairs Committee has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought varying travel restrictions in the UK’s four nations and a slow recovery plan for the airport sector, is likely to affect further progress and modernization in the industry.
In the Airports in Scotland report released today (March 22), MPs acknowledge the importance of airports to rural communities across Scotland, which was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. Airports were used to transport people to hospitals and supply vital goods and medicines to those in hard-to-reach areas.
The pandemic severely affected Scottish airports, with passenger numbers dropping by more than 75% in Scotland in 2020. The committee heard evidence that the recovery in terms of passenger numbers and Scotland’s ability to connect to other areas is unlikely to happen before 2025, and that varied restrictions across the UK made a challenging situation worse. At its current rate, the UK government’s strategic framework for aviation recovery – which is currently paused – is unlikely to speed up the sector’s recovery substantially. The committee calls on the government to publish this framework as soon as possible.
According to the committee, the sector’s slow recovery is likely to affect future plans for airspace modernization, as it relies on the sector to fund improvements. The Airspace Modernisation Programme has the potential to benefit the whole of the UK by making journey times quicker and quieter and helping to reduce carbon emissions from aviation. However, the committee warns that the program risks collapse unless it is properly funded, making the case for a swift recovery plan even more pertinent.
The committee noted that the Covid-19 pandemic and varying travel restrictions throughout the UK magnified the necessity for joined-up thinking between the UK and Scottish governments. This extends to the issue of Air Passenger Duty, which although devolved, is dependent on cross-government working to resolve legal issues around an exemption for the Highlands and Islands. The committee urges the governments to come together to explore this issue, which will then allow the introduction of the Air Departure Tax.
Scottish Affairs Committee Chair, Pete Wishart MP, said, “The Covid-19 pandemic was a turbulent time for the airports sector across Scotland. Lockdowns and travel restrictions hit the sector incredibly hard, and the pausing of a recovery plan by the UK government is prolonging the pain and uncertainty.
“Airports across Scotland offer a lifeline to many rural communities across the country. During the pandemic, airports had to stay open so essential workers could carry on with their important work, and that medicines and goods could get to those who needed them.
“However, we heard in evidence that it would have been cheaper to completely close airports than survive with the trickle of passengers they saw come and go. Now the UK government must publish its recovery plans for the sector: the uncertainty is continuing to be deeply damaging and delaying any progress to make the sector fit for the 21st century.”