LONDON – As those in the industry in the United Kingdom know, aviation is in a rather dark hole at this moment in time. From job cuts to restructuring and government bailouts, there is a lot going on.
Airways had the opportunity to speak with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Robert Courts to discuss how the UK aims to help this vital industry recover during this difficult time as well as the likes of BREXIT being on the way too.
JF: First of all, thank you for agreeing to the interview. I appreciate it’s a busy time. And from what I can understand you’ve been the Minister for two months now. And I appreciate this is sort of a difficult time for everyone. I expect you’ve been busy meeting the industry bosses? What’s your impression of where the industry is at the moment and where it might be going in the next few years?
RC: Well, look, it is an unbelievable honour to do this job, I am passionate about aviation. As an individual, I’ve always loved aviation. One of the big frustrations in the job of the moment is the fact I can’t get out and meet people, of course, and see things and visit in the way that I would like to but I’ve really enjoyed meeting this incredibly diverse, incredibly innovative, incredibly forward-looking dynamic industry in which we’ve always been world leaders, and we still are now.
So it’s a very difficult time for the sector. And I am acutely aware of the real difficulties that they have, with demand and with some of the public health restrictions that we’ve had to put in place. But you know, we’ve got a team that is absolutely united in our desire to get aviation flying again and to get people traveling again, in a safe way. But as soon as possible.
And I see that desire is, is obviously, of course, really shared by the industry who have been really innovative, really cooperative, really helpful and really constructive. It’s been a great example of the universe working together. But you asked particularly about sort of industry verticals the next few years. And obviously, at the moment, the focus is very much upon COVID. And the recovery from that. Obviously, that’s my focus at the moment.
But I also just looked at the future because we have an incredibly exciting time coming up ahead. You know, we’ve got the launch of the Jet Zero Council recently, in my first week.
In fact, as the minister, I went to see the first flight of a hydrogen-powered aircraft ZeroAvia at Cranfield University. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing that has been born in British aviation for decades.
It’s a really seismic and important moment. The real epoch, watershed. And this just gives us an example of some things we can look at including the good work on sustainable aviation fuels as well as some of the ground handling going on meaning we have a real opportunity to make Britain a global aviation leader in a new era.
So as we grow out of the COVID difficulties, which is obviously immensely challenging, there is a huge challenge, of course. But we also have a very, very bright future for this sector.
JF: So continuing on the COVID topic at the moment. In terms of airport testing, this has been something in our industry that has been heavily discussed. We’ve seen the likes of Heathrow Airport, joining up with the likes of Swissport, for private testing, instead of the government stepping in to control the system. Obviously, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, in the past has said that airport testing is ineffective. Do you believe that private firms should be conducting the testing as opposed to using the government’s testing providers?
RC: Firstly, the announcement that was made this week is a huge step forward. It’s a massive step forward towards getting aviation flying, again, in a safe, sustainable manner.
But it’s been a really good partnership between government and private industry, because in fact, under this system, it is provided by private providers, because we’re very keen, it doesn’t impact on NHS testing capacity.
So we have taken a deliberate approach where we are not saying that you have to have your test provided in a certain way by a certain provider.
What we’re doing is simply saying, these are the standards that you’ve got to meet, and provided you meet those standards, then you can provide the test.
So that’s to enable the space of people to innovate. It’s to enable the market to do what it does best, which is to come up with new solutions.
And that’s precisely so that you, the airports and ground handlers, and the private testing sector can step in. And as technology grows, then the system can move with it.
JF: The industry will welcome the news this week about their quarantine period being shortened, from the original two weeks to five days. The International Air Transport Association, earlier this week stated that quarantine costs more money to the economy than actual testing. So in that case, why is the government continuing to push quarantine? Is it purely on the safety perspective that the government has been pushing through? Or is it just purely, the scientific element, as opposed to making a change over something very drastic?
RC: So it’s a really good, really, really good point. And it’s important to just look at some of the detail of this. So firstly, this is an evolving policy.
We introduced quarantine, at the early stage because, in situations like this, it was an important move during a public health crisis. And we have to make sure that the virus is controlled.
But as data has improved, as technology improved, our understanding of the viruses improved, we’ve been able to introduce some incremental changes.
So part of this is with the travel corridors policy, which is if you step forward, then, of course, now get testing on top of that, as well.
So it’s a policy that is evolving as the understanding of the virus has evolved as it has gone along. With regards to the other parts of your question, the issue is, there’s a lot of different kinds of tests, and you’ve got to get to a position where you’re reasonably confident that people are going to be picked up by testing.
So it’s not a question of testing or quarantine, it’s how testing can be used to shorten the period of quarantine. And the issue of around the system is around asymptomatic carriers. Yeah, it’s about people who don’t have symptoms and therefore aren’t shedding sufficient amounts of the virus, so they don’t get picked up.
You’re testing has a huge part in reducing that quarantine period. And as time goes on, and as the technology increases, you know, we may be able to take a different view, we’re working on math and a number of other options at the same time, but it’s not right to say that the choice between the two, the two very much operate together.
And I also just like to emphasize that this isn’t job done. This isn’t mission accomplished. But the Global Travel Taskforce makes 14 recommendations. This is one of them. And this is the one we’ve announced and rolled out this week. But there’s a number of other things that we’re working on as well.
So we’re working on, you know, things like pre-departure testing, we’re working on things like partnerships with other countries where we’re working on things like business and tour bubbles. And we’re working on see how new technology can help. So this is very much an evolving policy.
JF: We take proceedings to regional airports. And they’ve obviously been the most heavily hit by the pandemic. So I’m referring to airports, such as Southampton (SOU), Exeter (EXT) and Newquay (NQY), as an example. And this has been sort of exacerbated more, so the demise of Flybe (BE), so what steps has the government taken to ensure that none of the regional airports go under as a result of this pandemic?
RC: So this has been an incredibly difficult period for all for aviation for all airlines and for all airports. And regional airports are particularly, vital for connectivity. The government fully recognises and supports there’s the importance of regional airports, and there’s a number of things we’ve done.
We have restarted public service obligations, in Northern Ireland, for example, to connect the union to ensure that connectivity was there. And as time has gone on, we’ve looked at what else we’ve been able to do.
And this week, of course, the other part of the announcement is cutting business rates to help them and it’s something where we’re looking to see what can be done to support different areas of the sector.
The big thing we’ve all got to do is to try to get people flying again, to make sure that the confidence is there to make sure that people are willing and able to travel that will help every part of the sector.
We’ve got that business rate aspect as well. And as we look forward to the next year we’ll be looking more broadly at aviation policy and good things we can do as we grow out of COVID to ensure that we have a thriving future.
JF: And so another part of that regional question, and obviously the government is taking a big step with HS2 rail and with the amount of money that it’s going to invest into the programme. Do you think that this will affect regional airports? And are there plans to offer support or investment to the regional airports, you know, alongside with HS2 to obviously connecting people to other areas of the country so quickly?
RC: I think we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a balanced transport system in the future. And so the multimodal aspect of it is particularly important.
And for some people, that train will be the right mode of transport. For some people, they’ll want to use cars, but for some people will be flying, and particularly the very remote places.
So it’s not a matter of choosing. We’ve got to make sure there’s a balanced transport economy, which links together as much as possible.
And we’ll be looking in over the course of the next few months and few years to see how best to do that once we’ve dealt with the immediate demands of the crisis.
JF: In regards to aviation after Brexit, it is a big challenge for the government to overcome. Grant Shapps was quoted in The Independent a couple of weeks ago saying if an open skies agreement between the UK and the EU is not agreed on, then flights could be grounded until such a deal is reached. Do you think that this is the reality that the industry has to brace itself for?
RC: Obviously, negotiations are ongoing. And it’s difficult to speculate at the moment but it’s in everyone’s interest that there is, free ability to travel between the continent and here. And I’m confident that that will happen.
It’s in everyone’s interest that we get through the situation through negotiation or through bilateral agreements that we get but whatever the outcome it is important that we have a good path to clear cooperation and travel between European friends, partners, allies, and ourselves.
But it’s important to remember that as you know, post-Brexit we have the opportunity as being a big national international leader in aviation anyway.
We can look to do things that suit our aviation industry and our aerospace manufacturers going forward. So as with the climate that I referred to earlier, there are challenges, but also big opportunities as well.
JF: I attended the Farnborough Air Show two years ago. And the focus of that show was Brexit, especially with Airbus threatening to pull its supply chain out of the UK. Is this something that you’ve still been speaking with Airbus about? And do they still have the same view that they are going to threaten withdrawal upon departure day?
RC: That tends to fall more into the remit of BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). But, Airbus have been a big part of the industry in this country. Britain’s important part is a leading part in Airbus, both regards to fixed wing aircraft helicopters.
And I’m confident that will remain the case. You know, there’s a bright future for us, and we can continue to cooperate and take part in international projects, regardless of what our relationship is with the European Union.
And then today, these aren’t political projects, the ones that are based upon commerce, practical exchange of ideas, corporations, I’m confident that would be the case across both modes in any event.
JF: On the topic of set agreements, the UK recently signed an open skies agreement with the United States for flights post-BREXIT. And clearly, the transatlantic market is of considerable value to the UK. Is there anything you’d like to say to the industry on the deal and whether there are any more agreements like this on the way?
RC: So you’re absolutely right. That’s a very important market. There are many other markets as well that are important. We continue to talk to international partners from all areas and will continue to do so to see what we can do to boost demand, and to putting together a free safe flying environment up and running.
Again, difficult to give any further comments on that at the moment, I can’t really go into conversations we’re actually having other than we’re aware of the importance of it, we share that. Thank you.
JF: The airline industry has been decimated because of this pandemic. We’ve seen base closures from EasyJet, we’ve seen tens of thousands of jobs cut from British Airways Virgin Atlantic. When we get to the point of recovery, which is dubbed to be 2024, there is going to be quite a big number of pilots that are going to be needed, again to cope with any future growth that’s on the way. Has the government ever fought about supporting training initiatives in the coming years so that we’re not left with some sort of massive skills gap by the time the industry recovers?
RC: So there’s absolutely no doubt that this is a vitally important sector for the country. And it’s crucial to our future prospects in terms of international trade.
It’s important to where we see ourselves in the world. And we are massively aware of that and be proud of the incredibly talented, highly trained technical workforce that exists.
And we will want to train more people, not just the aviation industry, but for related industries as well. There’s that high tech future that we’re very, very good at, which will remain a major part of our economic balance going forward in the future.
So we are in dialogue with partners in the sector to see how we can best support skills, but that STEM agenda, the education side of things, is something we’re putting more and more emphasis on and making sure we support people to make sure we’ve got the right people that can acquire the right skills, who will then be absolutely essential to the aviation industry. And to us, recovery is something that we are prized very highly and will continue to work on.
JF: The pandemic has been damaging job opportunities for pilots who have just graduated from flight school. And so, you know, to list an example, there were a couple of pilots from a flying school called L3Harris, and essentially their loans were recalled immediately upon graduation. So obviously, they haven’t got a job, they have to pay back over £100,000 in pilot training. Has there been any support for those people with immediate debt loan repayments as well as obviously being in a position of no work at the end?
RC: Firstly, I extend my sympathy to anybody who has found themselves in that situation. This has been an incredibly damaging period for the industry, both for those who are already in the sector and those wishing to get into the sector.
I think the most important thing to stress you know, is first, that our focus continues to be on getting the aviation sector up and running again, and flying as soon as possible in a safe way.
Because once that demand comes back and once we can get people out in confidence, then we can look at the brighter economic future, and that’s what will help those people.
The second point is that there is a bright future for this industry. I know we’re going through a very difficult period at the moment. But I’m absolutely convinced that aviation will be led by the UK in the future, and has a very bright future for everybody who wishes to be in it.
JF: And so my last few questions are related to when the Heathrow expansion. As we can imagine news about the expansion program has been pretty quiet in the industry. Is there anything that the government wishes to report on the expansion or has the pandemic led to obvious additional delays?
RC: This is one of these difficult questions, I’m afraid there’s not much I can say because this is still something that’s before the court so I can’t make any comment on it.
JF: Okay, moving away from Heathrow in terms of other expansion. For other airports around the country, say Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle, when the industry starts to grow back to the pre-COVID levels, will the government as part of its levelling up commitments, consider expansion for airports around the UK?
RC: So what we’ll do as we grow out of this pandemic, we will look to the future and start to consider what kind of recovery plan we might have.
So we’ll look at aviation policy much more widely, we’ll look at how we’re going to look to develop the regional airports, as well as the larger airports that just happen to be in regions.
However, it’s a bit early to start looking at that now. But there’s a lot of thought going into that on due course, I mean, individual expansion plans are planning matters for individual airports.
So it is important just to stress that it’s very difficult to get involved in everything on a planning aspect of it. But with regards to wider aviation policy, we are going to start looking at this holistically and look at how we support the industry, how we grow the industry, and how we realize this really bright future that I’ve referred to.
JF: Okay. Well, that’s all my questions. One last thing, is there anything that you would like to say to the industry and our readers?
RC: Yes, absolutely. Well, look, firstly, it’s an absolute honor to be your aviation minister. I’m passionate about the industry and being your voice in government is one of the greatest honors I could ever imagine. I am passionately committed to building out of this crisis, and to getting UK aviation, to a new dawn where it is a brighter future and where we can put COVID long behind us and we can explore the wonderful opportunities that exist for us in a cleaner, greener aviation.
And with many more jobs available as we grow through the stem agenda for education, more people can work, which has always been so important to the UK will continue to be even more important in the future.
JF: Minister, thank you very much for answering my questions.
Airways is delighted that the UK Government took time to answer some very important questions about the industry and where it will go.
It remains clear, as what Mr. Courts labelled out there, that the UK Government is looking towards a post-COVID element for the industry. But what it will look like still remains unknown.
Critics may argue that the response from the government may not suffice, especially with the high number of jobs being lost due to this pandemic.
Only time will tell, as we progress towards recovery, what the government will do. For now, all we can do it sit back nervously and wait to see what happens.
Featured Image: Westminster, home of the UK Government. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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