Aviation Industry — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of Worker Exploitation: Leicester Textile Industry – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell 2:30 pm, 18th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the aviation industry.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Before I start my remarks, I offer my congratulations to the Minister on his recent appointment. He was a very good member of the Select Committee and he is a very welcome addition to this role, even if the challenges he faces in it are pretty big at the moment. I wish him well.

The aviation industry is a vital part of our economy. It employs—or rather it did employ—hundreds of thousands of people around the country. It is an essential part of regional economies, which is why we see colleagues from around the United Kingdom here today, and it provides vital connections from the United Kingdom around the world. Today, it is a sector on its knees. Last weekend, I cast a quick glance at the Plane Finder app that some of us have on our phones. That afternoon, there were three aircraft in the air over the south of England—just three aircraft, and one of those was en route from France to the United States.

That is a disaster for this country. It is a disaster for all the staff and airline personnel who have lost their jobs, a disaster for the airport services companies and all their people, and a disaster for the suppliers to the industry, such as the catering services firms and the construction workers, who should be preparing to work on capital investment projects at our airports in the coming months but capital budgets have evaporated. They now face a bleak year ahead. The entire future of individual UK airlines is now under threat, and of course there is the broader issue of the impact on the aerospace sector as a whole.

We all accept that there was no way this pandemic could have passed without a major impact on aviation, but taking every step we can to mitigate that impact has been, should be, and must now be a national priority. However, as a loyal supporter of the Government who is sympathetic to them about the challenge they are trying to deal with, I must say that it does not feel like that at the moment. Public Health England, for example, produced what can only be described as highly questionable figures to justify the current restrictions. Only a couple of weeks ago, a Government Minister told the House of Lords that it is the view of the chief medical officer that travel is not a priority.

Although I really do understand the huge challenges that our medical community is facing, and they are doing a fantastic job in dealing with this pandemic, I fundamentally disagree with their view on this point about the sector. I urge the Government to change tack, to make at least the start of the reopening of our aviation sector an absolute priority and to use all the tools at their disposal to do so. That does not mean a mass opening of borders overnight, nor an instant return to mass holidays, but it does mean making a rapid move to restart key economic routes and to allow the return of travel without unnecessary restrictions to low-risk destinations.

The first key step that must be taken is to replicate what other countries are doing on testing. The current UK rules are simply too restrictive for low-risk destinations. I very much hope that the reports in the media about a reduction of the two-week quarantine rules are correct, but a decision to travel that still includes a period of several days when someone cannot leave their home, makes an important business trip, a short family holiday or a visit to an elderly relative in another country extremely difficult. Other countries are not asking for the same period of isolation.

I applaud my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary for the work he has done in expanding our test capabilities to the extent he has; it has been a phenomenal achievement and he deserves huge personal credit for that expansion. We have now by far the largest testing capability and the broadest range of testing capacity in Europe—well done. But if we can test the whole population of Liverpool quickly and effectively, why can we not open a handful of key economic routes quickly using those same technologies?

Why can we not reopen routes to New York and Washington, for example, setting aside the quarantine rules for those people who travel those routes and test negatively? Those are blue-chip routes for our industry; they deliver the highest level of profits and they are particularly vital for our economy. Are we really going to be putting the health of the country at risk by introducing the same kind of test rules that exist in other countries today and putting the same measures in place for those key routes?

Sir Edward, you or I could fly to Madeira tomorrow, taking with us a 72-hour-old test certificate. We would be allowed to enter the country freely, travel around and enjoy our visit. There is not a massive epidemic of the virus in Madeira. Why can we not apply the same rules for those key international destinations here?

The industry is starting to take steps itself. Heathrow airport, for example, is now providing travel to destinations such as Hong Kong, Cairo, Bahrain, the Seychelles, Japan, Italy and South Africa and pre-departure testing at the airport. The average turnaround time for test results is 67 minutes, and travellers have a certificate they can take with them to prove they have tested negative that same day.

British Airways is showing how it could be done on transatlantic routes by starting voluntary testing on key routes to the United States. Why not make those approaches official? Does anybody seriously think that that would be a less effective way of screening for risk than the current system, when it is patently clear, I am afraid, that many people are not following the self-isolation rules anyway? Allowing testing and restriction-free entry to the UK for those with negative results could unlock key routes and start the long rebuild of this vital industry.

I am not going to speak for long because many people want to contribute, but my message to the Minister is very simple; I also have one for the industry itself. Introducing airport testing and accepting a risk-based approach—which all the evidence suggests is low—is the easiest way to rebuild confidence in the airline industry and save jobs. That is the crucial piece: ultimately, the issue is about the welfare and employment of our fellow citizens. It is vital that we do this. Are we really going to continue to stand aside while entire airports risk closure and entire airlines risk disappearing? We have to act, and act now.

There is another issue for us as a Government and a nation. The first of January marks our first day outside the ambit of the European Union. The transition period will have ended and the post-Brexit world will begin—whatever the result of the negotiations. On the first day of global Britain, will there really be only three planes in the sky over the south-east of England? Will our global hub airport, and airports such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Bristol, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Cardiff, all be operating at a tiny fraction of their capacity? These are our global connections and have to be back in place for Britain in a global world post Brexit. For the sake of our economy, jobs and future role in that post-Brexit world, my message to Ministers is to make airport testing, and the flexibility that should come with it, the urgent priority that it should be.

One final word for the industry is that recovery must come and we have to do everything we can to make sure that it does, but it has to come with an eye for the future. I want to see that Plane Finder app full again, but aviation must rebuild with a focus on the environment as well. There is no magic technology solution that will make it a net-zero sector by 2050, although I welcome today’s announcements about support for improved technology in the sector.

I am hopeful that, before too long, hydrogen will power some short-haul planes, that all airports will have electric and hydrogen vehicles on their entire premises and that new technology for engines will continue to bring down emissions. I also believe that the industry needs to strengthen its offsetting strategy further to reduce its environmental impact. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, was a start, but is a long way from what is needed and is too remote a concept for consumers starting to worry about whether they can, or should, fly in the future. That is a big item on the agenda for the industry.

Immediately and over the next few weeks, the priority has to be getting planes flying again; the environmental strategy is a challenge we should be thinking about now, but the priority is that. That first task lies with the Government. My message to the Minister, to the great team at my old Department and particularly to the Department of Health is that we need airport testing and a regime that allows the industry to start to recover. Quarantine is killing it, and it will kill the first few months of global Britain. Things have to change, and they have to start changing right now.