UK Transport Committee criticizes government restrictions on the aviation sector

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In a new report, UK aviation: reform for take-off, the UK parliament’s Transport Committee concludes that the UK government’s restrictions on air travel throughout the Covid-19 pandemic were disproportionate to the risks to public health – and sets out suggested actions to support the recovery of the sector.

The report notes that in April 2022, airport passenger numbers increased to their highest since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, putting pressure on the sector during the Easter holidays. The committee is critical of the government’s attempts to lay the blame on a sector that had been severely affected by restrictions and a lack of certainty offered by ministers. The government has been urged to review the processes related to the timely recruitment and training of staff.

The Transport Committee’s report primarily argues that the decision-making process was not transparent or consistent, nor based on scientific consensus, and caused a severe financial shock to the sector. According to the committee, the arbitrary nature of 15 different changes to restrictions also left travelers struggling to navigate a confusing ‘traffic light’ system, access affordable testing and secure refunds.

To remedy the damage to the sector, the report calls for the UK government to set up an international travel toolkit based on the principles of transparency and proportionate action. It also declares that international travel restrictions must be evidenced by the advice and analysis used by ministers to impose restrictions, considering public health and economic factors. Furthermore, it suggests that a global taskforce should be convened to promote the standardization of the remaining international travel requirements.

The report highlights the need to publish the aviation recovery plan as a priority and no later than June 1, 2022. It also recommends the introduction of an Airline Insolvency Bill in the next session of Parliament, to better protect consumers, employees and taxpayers. The report suggests upgrading the power of the Civil Aviation Authority to impose financial penalties on airlines that do not refund customers when required.

Alongside this, the report calls for the establishment of safe and affordable Covid-19 testing options for travel, and for a one-year delay in the proposed landing charge increases at London Heathrow Airport to monitor the progress of the sector’s recovery. The report also declares that the delivery of the airspace modernization strategy to support the government’s decarbonization targets is an urgent requirement and suggests the implementation of more flexible rules on public service obligation routes and air passenger duty to improve connectivity between the four UK nations.

Huw Merriman, the chair of the Transport Committee, said, “In the face of a pandemic, today’s report acknowledges the difficult position faced by the government. However, government action was inconsistent. It left industry and passengers confused and unable to plan ahead. This resulted in a severe economic deficit for the aviation sector. As a result, thousands of people lost their jobs. Many more could not visit their loved ones. England’s Covid-19 restrictions on international travel were imposed with no overall assessment of their impact – a point underlined by the recent report from the National Audit Office.

“Now that the government has removed all coronavirus-related restrictions on international travel, ministers must get on with protecting the sector against future economic shocks and reassuring passengers that future restrictions will only be implemented in extreme circumstances. Legislation is urgently needed to give the industry more flexibility to recruit new staff for the summer, to give the regulator more teeth to intervene on behalf of consumers and to provide protection from airline insolvencies.

“Today we set out sensible recommendations with the aim of helping the government to achieve this. Above all, we want ministers to be transparent with industry and passengers. Over Easter, we witnessed a sector in the early stages of recovery and vulnerable to disruption. The increase in demand is encouraging but a sustained and supportive approach from government is vital to nurse the sector back to recovery.”

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