When the Government roadmap out of lockdown was announced last month, we saw an immediate spike in activity on our website as people searched for flights to Europe and beyond, writes British Airways boss Sean Doyle
Britain’s inoculation programme is an example to the world. The NHS has bought millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, jabbed around 30 million people and remains on track to vaccinate all adults by the end of July.
By anyone’s standards, this is a remarkable achievement.
With deaths and hospital admissions in the UK steadily reducing, scientists suggest the risk of serious illness presented by Covid-19 is diminishing.
Public Health England has confirmed that a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines reduces the chances of hospitalisation by 80 per cent, and a single jab reduces the infection rate.
This tremendous work means it’s now time to start returning to something resembling normal life, which for us means planning to get back in the air this summer.
As an airline, safety is in our DNA and will never be compromised.
The vaccine rollout is making things much safer at home and in many places round the world. Although it’s currently tough in some parts of Europe, we know things will change in just a few short months. Germany, France and Spain are ramping up their vaccination programmes, while at the same time using lockdowns to get their outbreaks under control.
We cannot delay the enormous planning process that needs to get under way to begin to restart complex airline operations, when it’s safe. If we do, we risk missing the entire summer, a near-fatal blow to the travel industry.
I see a huge pent-up demand for travel. When the Government roadmap out of lockdown was announced last month, we saw an immediate spike in activity on our website as people searched for flights to Europe and beyond. I could see the mood of my colleagues lift visibly at the prospect of a return to near normality.
Every day I receive heartbreaking emails from customers who are desperate to fly again, to reunite with relatives, friends, loved ones, some of whom have been apart for more than a year.
At the same time, many of our customers want to get back to business. They’re suffering so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ and they’re missing the real face-to-face meetings they need in order to land the deals that make money for the UK.
We cannot delay the enormous planning process that needs to get under way to begin to restart complex airline operations, when it’s safe. If we do, we risk missing the entire summer, a near-fatal blow to the travel industry
Aviation directly contributes £22 billion to the UK economy every year. We all know that business is done between people, not companies, and that those real-life connections are crucial to build relationships.
And let’s face it – millions of us need a holiday after the toughest year that most of us will ever have experienced.
Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, France and Spain have all indicated they would like in the next few months to welcome Britons who can show proof of a negative Covid test or of vaccination. In America, more than 135 million people have been vaccinated and President Biden says he expects all American adults to be offered the jab by the start of May, amid reports that the US Government could start easing travel restrictions for UK citizens by the middle of the same month.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said that a combination of vaccination, testing and travel passes will be the key to restarting international travel, and we agree.
Such schemes are already under way. The EU has announced it is set to create a system of Covid certification for travellers wanting to enter EU countries.
It’s clear that our Government should work with the EU but also the US and other countries to lift today’s restrictions and agree travel certification.
We might be a small island, but we punch far above our weight, and the Government really could lead the world with a strategy on restarting global travel. This is vital for our customers, who just want certainty.
We support the introduction of a system that sets out where we can travel safely, and which rules apply.
Once that is in place, people who are vaccinated should be free to fly, just as they were in 2019, before the pandemic.
People who are not vaccinated should be free to travel, too – provided they have proof of a recent negative test result.
For the past year we may have been stuck in the longest ever holding pattern at Heathrow, but I can assure you we’ve been doing everything we can to prepare for a return to flying, and to make travel safe and easy for our customers. Since last summer we have been advocating pre-departure testing as a safe way to allow people to travel.
Aviation directly contributes £22 billion to the UK economy every year. We all know that business is done between people, not companies, and that those real-life connections are crucial to build relationships
We have a partnership with a company that produces lateral flow tests that can be packed into a suitcase and used for entry back into the UK – ensuring the virus isn’t brought in. The cost of these tests, which give an answer within 20 minutes – £33.
We have also been helping to develop and trial digital apps that can hold testing certificates and, potentially, Covid vaccination data to make sure passengers can check they have the right documents for their journey and can get through the airport smoothly.
I am convinced that these are key to unlocking international travel, safely.
We’re working, too, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on its new Travel Pass initiative and conducting a trial of another app, VeriFLY, on all our flights to America and on all international flights into the UK.
Also, we’re developing our own document verification system on our website, ba.com, which we’re trying out on flights to India. We’re going to extend this to other destinations shortly.
Throughout the pandemic, despite the immense difficulties, we’ve kept going.
We proudly fly the flag on every one of our tail fins and we don’t take that responsibility lightly. Last year we flew thousands of tons of PPE and health supplies into the UK and brought more than 40,000 Britons home from abroad.
At some points last year, our flying was reduced to about five per cent of our 2019 schedule, and we furloughed more than 20,000 of our people. We were forced to restructure our business to survive, and to save the jobs of our remaining 30,000 colleagues.
Since I joined British Airways last October, my focus has been entirely on leading the airline out of the Covid crisis. There is real hope for the future, if we act now.
But if we are to achieve the Prime Minister’s vision of a truly global Britain, his Global Travel Taskforce must confirm a framework for international travel to restart on May 17, when it reports back in the coming days.
That way, we can lead the world out of this terrible pandemic. Otherwise, the UK is in danger of being a leader on vaccines but a laggard on the economy – with potentially catastrophic results for individuals and the nation as a whole.
Aircraft can’t reverse, they can only move forward. That’s why you see the tugs pushing them out to the taxi-way.
The image feels pretty apt for where we are right now. We can’t go back. We have to move forward, and we can’t wait to get back in the air and tell our customers just how much we’ve missed them.