Aviation chiefs have welcomed confirmation of the government’s traffic light regime to restart international travel, but say cheaper testing will be vital to unlocking the sector.
The calls for cheaper testing were led by Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered airlines, and echoed by the bosses of Jet2.com and easyJet, among others.
Referring to the framework for the resumption of international travel published by the government during the early hours of Friday morning (9 April), Alderslade said: "This does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers."
The framework is based around a traffic light system, with destination countries graded green, amber and red according to a number of factors including the progress of their Covid-19 vaccination programmes and their current rate of Covid infection.
However, even those returning to the UK from green destinations will have to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on day two of their return, which will likely add hundreds of pounds to the cost of taking a holiday for typical families.
"The insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing – even for low-risk countries – will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people," said Alderslade.
Alderslade continued: "It is also a further setback for an industry on its knees and the UK’s wider economic recovery, with many businesses and exporters reliant upon our domestic and international connectivity and a thriving aviation sector.
"All the evidence suggests you can reopen travel safely and in a risk-based manner with more proportionate measures, and we urge government to work with industry on a faster, cheaper and less complex solution."
Jet2.com chief executive Steve Heapy said that while he welcomed the government’s announcement, which he said demonstrated "a clear ambition to restart international travel", further detail and clarity – particularly on testing – was vital.
"We want our customers to enjoy a happy and healthy holiday, but without the additional cost of expensive pre-departure and post-arrival testing on top, so we are now calling for further clarity on a cost-effective Covid-19 testing regime for customers," said Heapy.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren raised similar concerns, reflecting comments he made earlier in the week which prompted prime minister Boris Johnson to pledge to "see what the government can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible".
"A two test system, including a PCR test for travel from low-risk Green countries, is a blow to all travellers wishing to visit family and friends or take a much-needed holiday this summer," said Lundgren.
"This risks reversing the clock and making flying only for the wealthy. Moreover, it is hugely frustrating the taskforce has not delivered what the prime minister said they should achieve in making this flexible and affordable."
Lundgren added the government had not provided any scientific basis for the PCR test requirement for returning international travellers when cheaper, rapid lateral flow tests are being used to reopen parts of the UK economy, such as some leisure and hospitality activities.
"As the rest of British society and the economy opens up, it makes no sense to treat travel, particularly to low risk countries, differently," said Lundgren. "We are ready and able to ramp up to safely take customers away, so I appeal to the government to re-examine the data and this approach before the end May."
Andrew Flintham, Tui managing director UK and Ireland, said the airline and operator was disappointed by the "expensive testing and quarantine measures" proposed by the government, despite the traffic light system allowing international travel to resume.
“We’re firmly committed to finding cost effective testing solutions for our customers, as well as offering maximum flexibility, so we can make travel possible this summer and beyond," said Flintham, adding he felt – on balance – travel would be possible this summer. "We will continue to work with the government to make this possible."
Dale Keller, chief executive of Bar UK, said while the framework served as an "initial go-ahead" for airlines, the government needed to sharpen up its plans ahead of implementation and fully utilise its proposed June and October reviews.
"The real work starts now on ensuring the plans can be implemented effectively and on-time, [and so the] travelling public have full confidence in the future travel experience, know when and where they can travel to, and understand what they are required to do," said Keller.
He added Bar UK advocated acceptance of rapid lateral flow tests to meet return testing requirements, and the creation of a joint industry-government border working group to ensure the airport experience is manageable.
Pilots union Balpa, though, said the lack of concrete dates, detail on tiered restrictions and cost of testing, would stymy the demand needed to help the industry recover.
General secretary Brian Strutton said the plan would "keep the aviation industry on its knees". "Ministers have said that the best form of support would be to get Britain flying again this summer. Today’s announcement simply won’t do that," he said.
“The British public – more than half of whom have now received a vaccine – will not feel confident to book holidays without knowing whether they’ll be forced into quarantine on their return. And even for countries on the Green list, travellers will need to take a PCR test at £100 per person, which is not sustainable."
Strutton added the union would write to chancellor Rishi Sunak to once again make the case for sector-specific support for aviation.