Travel industry crisis as airports expect as few as 20% of normal passenger numbers

·5 min read
The way we were: Gatwick airport before the coronavirus pandemic (Simon Calder)
The way we were: Gatwick airport before the coronavirus pandemic (Simon Calder)

The scale of Britain’s travel industry crisis has been laid bare by figures showing the country’s major airports will have only a fraction of their normal passenger numbers on what should be one of the busiest weekends of the year.

Manchester airport will handle less than 40 per cent of the flights of two years ago, while Gatwick – once the world’s busiest airport of its kind – will have a fifth of its usual number of travellers in August.

Industry bosses blame uncertainty caused by the government’s botched traffic light plan, as exclusive polling for The Independent shows just 12 per cent of Britons still intend to go abroad this summer.

Research by The Independent reveals that even though vaccinated passengers can avoid quarantine when returning from amber list countries, a significant resurgence in demand for international travel has not materialised – leaving Gatwick and the other UK airports handling a small fraction of previous levels of passengers.

Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency, said: “The majority of the travel sector remains deeply unbusy. Consumers are nervous of the government’s poor quality traffic lights system and worried that they will be caught out while overseas, at great cost.

“We need to see governments collaborating more on opening up travel and enabling the fully jabbed to access areas without fear of quarantine.”

The abrupt shift of Portugal from the quarantine-free green list to the amber list – requiring self-isolation – was one of many shocks that has undermined travellers’ confidence. Another was last week’s surprise creation of an amber plus category.

On 8 July the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced that people who had received two NHS vaccines would not need to self-isolate on return from medium-risk countries such as France and Spain – the two most popular nations for British holidaymakers.

But eight days later ministers abruptly reversed the decision for France, wrecking the plans of hundreds of thousands of travellers.

No foreign visitors to the UK will be helped by the vaccine exemption, because only NHS-administered jabs are acceptable. Those hoping to visit as tourists or business travellers, or to see family and friends, are excluded from the arrangement and are likely to stay away rather than self-isolate on arrival.

As a result of the near-total absence of inbound demand and the crisis in consumer confidence, airlines have cancelled thousands of flights across the summer season.

Meanwhile, polling by Savanta ComRes for The Independent found most Britons think that the restrictions have been unsuccessful in protecting the UK from the spread of Covid. Some 57 per cent said they were not confident in booking a holiday as a result of the government’s traffic-light system.

Two years ago London Gatwick was the busiest single-runway airport in the world. The Sussex hub, which is also easyJet’s main base, hit a peak of 168,000 passengers in a day in August 2019.

But the tangle of international travel restrictions and frequent abrupt changes to quarantine rules mean Gatwick will handle just one-fifth of its usual passengers next month.

The airport, and the airlines that use it, depend on the peak summer season – primarily August – to provide high revenue in order to sustain them through the winter.

Manchester, which in 2019 was among the top 20 airports in Europe, will handle fewer than 40 per cent of flights over the “getaway weekend” compared with two summers ago.

Passenger loads in 2019 were typical above 90 per cent, but in 2021 they have struggled to reach much more than 60 per cent.

In addition, Manchester’s second-busiest route (after Palma) was with Emirates to and from Dubai, currently on the government’s red list requiring hotel quarantine for arrivals. Consequently, the number of travellers may be only one-third of 2021 levels.

London Stansted, part of the Manchester Airports Group, is expecting significantly more movements this weekend: 62 per cent of 2019 levels. It is the main hub for Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair, which has been operating flights despite low passenger loads and fares.

Seats on Saturday’s flight from Stansted to Bordeaux were available on Friday evening for £27 one way – about one-fifth of the expected fare on one of the busiest summer weekends of the year. The same price applies to Pisa in Italy.

East Midlands, the third member of Manchester Airports Group, will see 45 per cent of aircraft movements this weekend compared with 2019. The top five destinations are Palma, Faro, Tenerife, Malta and Alicante.

While Luton airport in Bedfordshire expects Sunday 25 July to be the busiest day of the year so far, with around 20,000 passengers, numbers are not expected to be above 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels through August.

Heathrow airport, which lost its crown as busiest in Europe 16 months ago, will reveal its half-year results on Monday morning. For most of the first half of 2021, international leisure travel from the UK was illegal, with passenger numbers often around 90 per cent down.

Previously Heathrow was a crucial hub for North America, but a ban on non-American passengers from the UK has been in force for 16 months. This week the UK was placed on the highest risk level by the US Centres for Disease Control, with Americans urged to stay away.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “It’s another blow to an already fragile industry and creates even more uncertainty for travellers. Vaccination is either a free pass to unlocking or it isn’t. While the rest of the world unlocks Brits are stuck in Groundhog Day again and again. Travellers and the industry need certainty no more confusion.”

“The travel industry’s long road to recovery is extending far beyond the horizon and in particular delays to reopening the US are a major setback to both BA and Virgin Atlantic,” a senior aviation executive said.

Yet even attempts to capitalise on UK domestic demand appear futile.

Wizz Air has dropped its planned domestic services for the summer, while easyJet’s new route between Inverness and Newquay – the longest UK internal route – is apparently selling poorly, with fares below £25 one way available for August.

A flexible rail ticket for the same route costs £264.

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