I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling for securing the debate. Planes transporting people to places across the UK, Europe and further afield have been a regular sight in the skies above East Devon for decades. Earlier today, I checked the number of arrivals and departures at Exeter airport. There were no flights and no connections. Passenger numbers have dropped by 95%. That should be a stark wake-up call for the levelling-up agenda. We cannot level up every region of the country if we level off regional aviation.
Everyone who flies to and from Exeter airport contributes to our local economy. Many of the remaining jobs at the airport are highly skilled, retaining local talent and bringing investment to our area. The current problems faced by the aviation sector are not solely issues stemming from the pandemic; they have firm roots in the consolidation of airport slots in London and the south-east. The lack of capacity at major hub airports in the UK and the air passenger duty regime penalise domestic air travel. Air passenger duty needs to be reformed to give the smaller, regional airlines mentioned in this debate a lifeline, and to help new, rebranded airlines such as Flybe, to get back in business.
I have repeatedly called for the Government to scrap business rates for airports for 12 months—a call that I have heard again this afternoon. It feels like groundhog day for me. I cannot fathom why my call remains unanswered. It would cost £680,000 to scrap Exeter airport’s business rates bill for a year—a drop in the ocean compared with the business rates bills for major supermarket chains, for example. I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions last week. The Prime Minister confirmed that the Department for Transport is looking at bespoke support for particular regional airports, to keep them going in these tough times. I support that move; I just hope it is not too late.
Regardless of whether additional support is forthcoming, it will take time for passenger confidence to return. The global testing taskforce is working with the industry on solutions to safely reduce self-isolation periods with testing. Hundreds of thousands of jobs at airports, airlines, travel agents and many more businesses depend on solutions that were needed yesterday. We all recognise the need for a cleaner, greener aviation industry, but we need the industry’s jobs and expertise to help deliver that aim. I fear that without further support for the aviation sector, that hope, those jobs and our regional airports remain at risk on our watch.