We’ve been here before. The idea of creating bridges between major aviation hubs was first raised in the early part of the summer, and at the time the concept seemed like a solution. The reality has been very different.
With long-haul virtually wiped out for many holidaymakers this summer, venturing to Europe for a break in Italy, Greece or Spain seemed like a good compromise. However, it ultimately became a gamble, as travellers scrambled weekly for seats home following the Government's announcements each Thursday evening on cancelled air corridors. Another badly managed event and more changes in policy.
So, can the latest suggestion of an air bridge to New York really make a difference, and would it actually work?
As the below shows, New York last year ranked fifth in terms of available seats from the United Kingdom:
Number of scheduled seats from the UK (2019)
Hong Kong (1,128,141)
Los Angeles (1,094,742)
New York (1,016,419)
San Francisco (713,813)
However, it was first in terms of the number of scheduled flights operated:
Number of scheduled flights from the UK (2019)
New York (4,120)
Los Angeles (3,682)
Hong Kong (3,518)
San Francisco (2,360)
The fact that New York had more flights than any other destination but ranked fifth in capacity highlights why both airlines and airports want to trial the route; a significantly higher proportion of business class seats would in normal times result in more revenue for everyone. But these are not normal times.
Last year there were some 2.2 million bookings from the United Kingdom to New York alone. Typically, around one-third of passengers flying on a service from the UK to New York last year were either connecting from points in Europe, Africa or the Indian-Subcontinent or to another US city. Will those passenger flows be allowed? Will we have air bridges to air bridges, and will they then become corridors? Who knows.
The aviation industry has been calling out for Governments to be more flexible and more willing to trial different approaches to testing; and there is gathering support for testing at airports. Quite what happens when someone is denied boarding because of a positive Covid-19 test or a fever having already checked-in remains unanswered; will the airline refund the fare or indeed offer a dreaded voucher? It’s not yet clear. A full refund would seem obvious, but nothing has been straightforward for many carriers in the last nine months.
By virtue of suggesting that a £150 test fee will be charged, the potential market becomes extremely limited. Could a family of four realistically pay over £600 for testing, for example? And given the typical cost of an economy air fare to New York is around £450; a one-third surcharge for testing seems excessive.
One solution may of course be for the Government to waive Air Passenger Duty on such routes where air bridges and testing are functioning, but the UK Treasury has done little to support the industry to date and it’s not likely to change its mind now.
We clearly need to kick-start aviation, rebuild confidence for travellers and, crucially, reboot trade and business activity. But we need to also be certain that the authorities are prepared to accept that air bridges are permanent going forward and not to be subject to the roll of a statistical dice in Whitehall. The New York experiment is a great step forward, but we need to move on rapidly to find effective solutions for Dubai, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Singapore.
Airlines and airports have introduced and in many cases exceeded the necessary protocols but until we get clarity and consistency from our regulators, air bridges could once again just create more hassle for everyone than they’re worth.