Airline chiefs call for an end to global travel restrictions

  • Airline chiefs call for a US-UK travel corridor
  • Aviation leaders urge governments to end global travel restrictions
  • UK airlines and European hoteliers disappointed by latest travel announcement
  • Spain eases COVID entry rules for British tourists despite UK travel rules

Transatlantic travel restrictions, which governments introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19, have plagued travellers, airlines and tourism firms for months.

While non-essential international travel restarted on May 17th in Britain, the UK government’s traffic light system has been a thorn in the side of aviation leaders, who have described the system as a barrier to recovery.

With so few countries on the “green” list, the destinations that Britons can visit without quarantining are extremely limited, which has weighed on confidence and deterring plans to holiday abroad.

Although the Global Travel Taskforce (GTT) never said that foreign travel would be limitless come May 17th, industry officials did not expect to experience these types of challenges and hurdles on the path to recovery.

So, what are the roadblocks on the road to recovery for the aviation industry?

COVID-19 mutations raise concerns

Emerging COVID-19 variants

In the UK, officials fear that travellers returning to Britain could import new, potentially vaccine-resistant variants into the country and jeopardise Britain’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts.

Concerns over endangering public health also saw the UK government move Portugal – which was the only green-listed European country – to the “amber” category during the latest travel announcement.

European hoteliers were alarmed by the move, among other measures, such as the British government’s decision to leave EU states with low COVID caseloads off the green list.

Steve Heapy, the chief executive of Britain’s second-largest tour operator Jet2holidays, urged the UK government to be more transparent about the criteria it was using to determine whether a country is “green”, “amber”, or “red”.

Mr Heapy said that simply stating “there is a new variant” in a country is unacceptable and called for a more in-depth explanation about how decisions are made and how a variant goes from being a variant of interest to a variant of concern.

Meanwhile, Dr Bharat Pankhania, a University of Exeter lecturer, said that ministers have “never properly identified the parameters that signal the move from a variant of interest to a variant of concern.”  Dr Pankhania suggested that when they show more infectious properties and resistance to coronavirus vaccines, they move from being variants of interest to variants of concern.

However, Steve Heapy believes that the UK government’s approach to emergent coronavirus variants is unfeasible. Mr Heapy said that ministers “can’t shut everything down when a new variant emerges; new strains are bound to continue developing – that’s mother nature.”

Chief executive of Airlines UK, Time Alderslade, has also described the UK government’s approach as overly cautious. Mr Alderslade noted that the industry isn’t calling for a total reopening but that the current system is unworkable and places millions of travel jobs at risk.

He added: “If the government is going to have this kind of risk appetite…then it’s going to be difficult to see how we can have a summer season.”

Several other industry leaders have condemned the UK government’s traffic light system, with the chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership (ATP), Julia Lo Bue-Said, stating that ministers are sacrificing the sector.

UK travel industry facing another difficult summer

Hours after Britain removed Portugal from the travel “green” list, Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of ATP, warned the GTT that Britain was at risk of being left behind.

Ms Bue-Said stated: “We are much further down the road than we were this time last year.

“Airlines had anticipated a more significant restart to travel given that half of the adult population is fully vaccinated and more than 75% of UK adults have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose.

“We’re doing a phenomenal job, far better than any other country in Europe – and yet we are being left behind as we are not utilising the benefit of how successful our COVID vaccination campaign is.”

The Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive added: “Anyone who has decided to travel gets no sympathy”, referring to the fact that Britons holidaying in Portugal were given four days to return to the UK to avoid self-isolating at home for ten days.

She urged the British government to make decisions based on facts and data to protect the industry and ensure British holidaymakers can travel abroad safely.

Besides removing Portugal’s green status, the UK government moved seven other countries to the red list, including:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bahrain
  • Costa Rica
  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • Sri Lanka
  • Trinidad & Tobago

Currently, anyone arriving in Britain from “red” list destinations must quarantine for ten days in government-designated hotels at the cost of GBP 1,750 per person.

The Global Travel Taskforce stressed that they will review the traffic light system every three weeks and that there is a “continuing risk of disappointment as the UK government cannot rule out future travel restrictions.”

However, a Whitehall source has said that the relaxation of transatlantic travel restrictions has been sacrificed to reopen the domestic economy, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoping to remove all COVID lockdown restrictions in the UK on June 21st.

Another Whitehall source said that Mr Johnson had prioritised the domestic situation to prevent a delay to the June 21st reopening.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also stressed the importance of protecting the progress made on home soil. Mr Hancock noted that domestic freedoms must be protected at all costs, and there is no desire to make a significant expansion of the green list in the medium term.

Meanwhile, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stated that the June 21st reopening takes priority over the restart of international travel, noting that “a safety-first approach gives Britain the best chance of unlocking domestically.”

Mr Shapps comments have sparked widespread disapproval across the travel industry, and several aviation leaders have signed an industry petition demanding his dismissal.

Airline chiefs issue a joint plea amid ongoing travel restrictions

Aviation leaders issued a joint plea at a press conference on Tuesday, insisting that they can operate safely ahead of talks between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden at a G7 summit in Cornwall later this week.

The plea follows demands from UK airlines for UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to resign due to the lack of transparency over the traffic light system.

The coalition of transatlantic airlines are urging President Biden and PM Johnson to introduce a UK-US travel corridor due to the strength of both countries COVID vaccination programmes.

Industry players such as London Heathrow Airport, British Airways, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue are backing the plea, all of which have argued that a US-UK corridor is “essential to igniting economic recovery” on both sides of the ocean.

UK aviation leaders pointed out the steep losses that the industry’s closure had caused the British economy. They warned that the UK economy would take a GBP 23M hit for each day global travel restrictions would remain in place.

In a joint statement, the aviation bosses said: “Given that Britain and the US have world-leading vaccination programmes, this presents a clear opportunity to restart travel between these two low-risk countries safely.

“We should be allowing citizens on both sides of the Atlantic to reconnect with loved ones, re-establish business relationships and explore new destinations after months of COVID-induced travel restrictions.”

Transatlantic operators have been beset with coronavirus lockdown restrictions for more than a year, and millions of travel jobs have been lost as a result.

British Airways has axed over 12,000 jobs in the past year, while Virgin Atlantic, which secured a GBP 1.2BN private-sector rescue package in 2020, made almost half its workforce redundant.

The airlines warned that another summer slowdown for the already fragile industry would cost approximately GBP 55.7BN in trade and GBP 3BN tourism.

Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said there was no need for restrictions to be in place between the two countries when 77% of British adults and 63% of US adults had received their first coronavirus vaccine doses.

Currently, the United States features on the UK’s “amber” list, meaning arrivals from the US must quarantine for ten days and produce two negative COVID tests during their self-isolation period.

Rules against the UK are far more stringent, as any non-US citizen that has been in Britain within the last 14 days will be denied entry into America unless they meet specific exemption criteria.

Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the UK as a “Level 3” destination, those rules do not apply due to a presidential decree issued last March.

It comes as America relaxes COVID entry rules against more than 110 countries and territories during its latest travel announcement.

US CDC awards 61 countries with “Level 3” status

The US CDC has eased COVID travel rules against more than 100 destinations ahead of Japan’s Tokyo Olympics, with 61 countries upgraded from “Level 4” status to “Level 3”.

The US CDC updated its lists as accelerating coronavirus vaccine rollouts had reduced caseloads and the risks of severe infection in many countries.

Among those upgraded to “Level 3”, meaning fully vaccinated passengers can visit the US from these countries were Canada, Ecuador, France, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine.

Although Britain has an impressive vaccine rollout and one of the highest total numbers of vaccination doses administered per 100 people globally, it continues to have Level 4 status.

Other countries where travellers are prohibited entry into the US include Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, India, the European Schengen Area and South Africa.

A White House official said the Biden administration had formed expert working groups to discuss the best way to safely return to the skies as new emergent variants crop up to support the industry.

Meanwhile, other countries, such as Spain, have updated their existing criteria to differentiate outbreak situations more effectively and help make travelling easier for tourists arriving from low-risk countries.

Spain eases COVID entry rules for Brits

From June 7th, Spain announced that Brits arriving into the country could do so without producing a coronavirus test or vaccination certificate.

Although the new Indian COVID variant is a cause for concern, Spanish officials said they decided to allow quarantine-free travel for Brits. Spain said that they added the UK to its reduced measures list as the country has shown a low incidence of the virus and has a successful vaccination programme.

Despite being on the UK’s “amber” list, Spanish authorities hope that the move will boost tourism by encouraging summer holiday arrivals.

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