There were high hopes for the Chancellor’s budget speech. His promise to do “whatever it takes, for as long as it takes” to support UK jobs and businesses is exactly what the aviation sector needed to hear.
His plans to extend the job retention scheme seemed to signal an appreciation that the economic crisis is far from over, so his failure to even mention aviation will be a huge disappointment to the 1m people who work in the sector and its supply chain and who will be feeling vulnerable after the budget.
The extension of support for jobs and training is welcome and the “Super-deduction” announced may help contractors to invest, but so much else was missing.
How can there be hope for a green economy without support for specifics like sustainable aviation fuel? The Chancellor projects growth of below 2% in the medium term – how could stronger growth be sustained unless aviation is thriving?
Heathrow is the UK’s biggest port by value and Global Britain cannot get off the ground without it – and a strong aviation sector. Support for aviation is essential if it is to help boost the economic recovery.
Aviation benefits almost every other sector – when it suffers, so do the jobs it sustains, as was underlined by parliamentary data published recently which shows unemployment rising around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted at well over double the national rate.
The Chancellor’s failure to mention aviation at all is hugely disappointing. The only support offered is the existing Airports & Ground Operations Support Scheme, which offsets business rates, with a cap per airport of £8m – but Heathrow alone pays £120m per year.
Back Heathrow has long called for a 100% waiver of airport business rates as has been offered to other sectors. Local politicians of all parties support this but the Chancellor is not listening.
Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said: “The absence of any meaningful support from the Government will weaken the sector and limit UK growth at the time it is needed most.”
It is difficult to disagree. So come on Mr Sunak, you said: “Whatever it takes, for as long as it takes” – now it’s time to put your arms around aviation.
Rivalry between Europe and the US over the best sustainable aviation fuels could hinder plans to tackle aviation emission targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
EU proposals will mean a minimum of ‘green’ fuel would have to be used in every aircraft flying within the EU, with incentives to boost production.
However, the last time something similar was attempted, the US objected and the proposals were subsequently dropped. Although greener fuels are around 80% less carbon emitting than conventional aviation fuel, they are also up to four times more expensive to produce. Needless to say in the current economic crisis no airline wants to be undercut by a rival, even if it is for a greener fuel.
And it isn’t just cost – debate also rages over the type of aviation fuel that best meets the carbon challenge and is commercially viable and sustainable – a choice between biofuels and electrofuels.
In 2021, renewable fuels account for just 0.05% per cent of total jet fuel consumption in the EU because previous attempts to encourage take-up of sustainable fuels through tax incentives and carbon trading schemes have failed.
But just how green is green? The debate within the aviation industry is about how sustainable ‘biofuels’ are, with some airlines opposed to the inclusion of crop based biofuels like palm oil because of environmental consequences. Palm oil is under scrutiny because processing it into fuel enhances its commercial value and encourages deforestation.
Technology now allows fuel to be produced from non-biological resources by blending conventional kerosene with renewable hydrocarbon and the term ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF) is used to highlight their sustainable nature.
Unsurprisingly, EU states will lobby for options that suit their own industries. Sweden favours a broad definition for sustainable fuels, including crop-based biofuels, whilst Germany is opposed to biofuels and wants to promote next generation electrofuels – created by combining hydrogen extracted from water with carbon taken from the air.
At the moment nearly half of aviation emissions are generated by long-haul flights which are not suitable for electric and hydrogen technologies so SAFs remain the fuel of choice in aviation. There is hope that COP26 – the UN climate change conference in Glasgow in November - will broker global agreements to ensure the future use of SAFs.
Back home the conundrum that faces the UK is how to achieve growth and cut carbon. Solving it is crucial to achieving the aim of meeting the global demands for trade and travel, whilst meeting the all-important target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. International agreements on SAFs will have a crucial role to play.
The idea of a health passport has been floated for a few months now. Airports, airlines and governments have all expressed interest in an online system that could track immunisation to Covid-19.
This would be in the form of an app or digital certificate – including vaccination and test records – giving everyone immune to Covid-19 digital proof of their health, and the ability to travel to countries that participate in the scheme.
European countries have urged the EU to come up with a co-ordinated certification that will be accepted across all member states.
The UN World Tourism Organisation secretary-general, Zurab Pololikashvili, said: “The roll-out of vaccines is a step in the right direction, but the restart of tourism cannot wait. Vaccines must be part of a wider, co-ordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel.”
Australian airline Qantas has announced it will require passengers to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before they board. Australian borders are closed to visitors and residents must quarantine for 14 days from arrival. A vaccine passport would offer an alternative to that system.
In October 2020, a trial of a digital ‘health passport’ was held at Heathrow Airport. CommonPass was the first step towards creating a common international standard for Covid-free certificates. Participants were required to take a Covid test no sooner than 72 hours before their flight. If negative, the app generates a ‘QR’ code to be scanned by border officials and airline staff, without disclosing any other sensitive data.
The International Air Transport Association is also working on a system (called Travel Pass) which in its simplest form will be a centralised database of national entry requirements. It will also carry vaccine and testing information.
Mvine and iProov (identity management companies) have already developed such an app in the UK, which is in the final stages of testing. This app will give access to the vaccination and testing data of individuals, without disclosing their identity. Additionally, it will piggy-back on existing NHS infrastructure, so roll-out may become easier and cheaper.
The pandemic has brought the travel industry to its knees. While we are still early in the process of mass vaccination, making it compulsory to have a vaccine to board a plane or enter the country will not give the travel industry the boost it so desperately needs. Not in the short term anyway.
But if vaccine passports also carry information about a recent negative test or anti-body presence, then they can become part of an approach that can help revitalise the travel industry and begin and kick start economic recovery.
There is hope around the corner, and it can’t come soon enough.
Unemployment in constituencies around Heathrow has soared since March, a new study by the House of Commons Library shows.
In Hayes and Harlington, the constituency that includes Heathrow, unemployment climbed from 2,725 in March to 7,750 in October – a 184% increase.
The study reveals that other aviation communities across the UK have also suffered – unemployment in Gatwick, Manchester, Luton and Stansted is a third higher compared with regional averages.
The aviation industry is in deep crisis and time is running out for the government to act. Failure to act will have long-term implications for airport communities across the country. That is why GMB London and the Back Heathrow campaign have come together to make the case for urgent action to protect jobs, businesses and the communities we represent.
Campaigners outside the Crown Court in 2019
As Covid-19 has swept across the world, those at the heart of ensuring global connectivity have been hardest hit. Heathrow, the UK’s only hub-airport, was operating at 98% capacity before the virus struck. Millions of people were passing through every month, but by August 2020 passenger traffic had fallen by over 80% compared to the same month last year.
It is a dire situation for airports, airlines and the wider supply chain with businesses employing hundreds of thousands of people either collapsing or on the brink. A huge hole has been blasted in our national economy, leaving the country woefully underprepared for life in a post-Brexit world. It is clear - this is a national emergency for aviation that requires significant, urgent action.
However, instead of taking measures to ensure Britain can protect jobs and trade, the government has passively watched from the side-lines as thousands of skilled, unionised jobs have been lost. We believe there is a real danger that many sizeable airport towns and cities will lose businesses and jobs that may never return, leaving ghost towns where once we saw thriving, diverse communities.
The government can, and must act decisively to prevent this by:
- Recognising the contribution of aviation to the national economy. Over a million people rely on the sector for their livelihoods, and our public services need the £22 billion it adds to our GDP. Aviation is a special case, and the government should recognise that.
- Ensuring government investment is supported by a plan to transition to sustainable aviation. Creating a greener industry that meets the demands of a net-zero carbon world can benefit jobs too. By investing in Sustainable Aviation Fuels the government could support aviation and deliver on our environmental commitments.
- Providing immediate support, by ensuring the Job Support Scheme remains in place for as long as it takes to protect aviation jobs; and offering respite for airports to help retain staff through the deferral of business rates - as we have already seen in Scotland and Wales.
- Creating a national standard for safe flying with appropriate levels of PPE for staff and replacing the blunt quarantine policy with Covid testing at airports – restoring passenger confidence to fly again, as over 50 other nations have done already.
- Stop delaying Heathrow's expansion. When the Supreme Court has had it say this Autumn, the government should concentrate on delivering the long-term capacity at Heathrow that Parliament and an Independent Commission has called for. London and the country need the 180,000 new jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships that expansion will deliver. This can and must be done with strict compliance to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
It is time for the government to get serious about our airports, our aviation industry and its vast supply chain. GMB London and Back Heathrow want action to protect jobs, action to help businesses to trade and action to ensure the fabric of life in so many airport towns remains intact. There is no more time to lose.
This article was co-authored by the GMB union and Back Heathrow.
Testing for Covid-19 at airports is not a new idea. Many countries introduced testing as early as March 2020. We’re still grappling with the idea in the UK, and its August.
Every passenger arriving at Hong Kong Airport is being tested for Coivid-19. The tests are done at a temporary testing facility near the airport and results are available within eight hours. Passengers wait until the results are known and, when they receive a negative, they are allowed to enter the country.
A variation of this process has been adopted in Singapore, Japan and Dubai. At Vienna’s airport tests are offered to passengers pre-departure. If they receive a clean bill of health they will avoid quarantine at the destination.
An online poll conducted by the Back Heathrow community group shows:
- Local residents are opposed to the government’s quarantine policy;
- are in favour of more investment in Heathrow;
- want to see common international standards for airport health checks.
Asked about government plans to quarantine all airport arrivals for 14 days and the impact on jobs in the tourism and travel industries, nearly a half of all respondents (47%) thought it was wrong, 29% thought it was right, whilst 24% were unsure.
Nine out of ten residents also wanted the Government to establish a UK-wide and common international standard for temperature checks and contactless security measures.
Turning to the economic future of the UK and west London in particular, eight out ten thought the government should invest in Heathrow Airport to help boost the UK – now in the deepest recession since the 1930s.
Concern about employment came through strongly, with nine out of ten concerned about the low number of planes using the airport and the announcements by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and other airlines on job losses and reduced operations.
This was mirrored with the question on Government help to the airport and airlines, with another massive eight out of ten saying the government should intervene to help the aviation industry before it was too late.
But perhaps the most interesting question was whether residents had noticed any difference to noise, pollution and traffic since lockdown, with traffic heading the poll over noise and pollution.
This week, BBC London News highlighted the economic storm about to hit the London Borough of Hounslow.
43,000 jobs in the borough depend on Heathrow, with 11,000 local people directly employed there and another 32,000 in the supply chain.
Source: Hounslow Council
Passenger numbers are already down 97%, leading many companies to furlough staff in the hope of saving their jobs until the Coronavirus crisis has passed. The decision to introduce 14-day quarantine for arrivals is likely to reduce passenger numbers still further and the government’s plans to transfer much of the cost of the furlough scheme to employers could have dire consequences for boroughs like Hounslow.
Wayne King of Unite the Union, which represents thousands of workers at Heathrow, told the BBC: “As employers begin to ease out of furlough, some of them are not going to be able to afford the contributions the government is looking for them to make. Mass redundancies will have a devastating effect on the local economy.”
The news item suggested the economic output in the borough could fall by 40% and one-in-three households is at risk of job losses.
Source: Hounslow Council
The government seems determined to push ahead on its quarantine plan. The leader of Hounslow Council, Cllr Steve Curran, wants the government to carefully consider the consequences.
“We are moving on to the economic crisis. I would ask people to think really hard about what that will mean, if there is mass unemployment.”
Without a concerted government plan for recovery in aviation, boroughs like Hounslow will be dealing with an economic crisis on top of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The proposals from British Airways to make as many as 12,000 people redundant and possibly end its entire operation at Gatwick is a worrying demonstration of how Covid-19 is changing the world. It is a deeply concerning time for people in and around Heathrow airport.
With so many jobs and livelihoods dependent on a thriving UK aviation industry, these fears will be shared in homes and communities across the country. Regional airports throughout the land are suffering. Some, like Newquay and Teeside, have shut to all but the emergency services, whilst others are reducing hours of operation and severely curtailing flights. Glasgow Airport has even repurposed its long-stay car park to host a drive-through mobile testing centre for the virus.
It’s not just the airlines and the airports that are suffering, as thousands of local businesses who rely upon them for work are hurting too – caterers, taxi drivers, cargo handlers, transport and construction workers, energy suppliers, security staff, cleaners and so on. It has been estimated that in the area to the west of Heathrow aviation and related activity supports around 120,000 jobs and contributes £6.2billion to the UK economy.
As Executive Director of Back Heathrow, the community group with over 100,000 supporters, I speak to local businesses, employees, and unions, and know the anguish this is causing. It’s really tough, but I know that we are all in this together and if the UK is to get its economy back on track, it’s going to need fully functioning airports and local businesses trading successfully again.
I hope that for some it won’t be too late. The Government must take action now to safeguard UK airlines and airports, so we can meet the Prime Minister’s challenge and ‘fire up the engines’ of our economy in post-lockdown Britain.