Bristol Airport boss slams government over travel rules and UEFA

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The chief executive of Bristol Airport has criticised the government for a “lack of transparency” over its latest updates to foreign travel restrictions – and questioned its decision-making over the Euro 2020 tournament.

David Lees said he was “pleased” there had been some movement from the government, with more countries added to its so-called ‘green list’, but was concerned about the lack of clarity over what Westminster would do next.

Some 16 destinations have been added to the green list, from which travellers returning to the UK do not have to quarantine, including Malta, Spain’s Balearic islands, and Caribbean countries such as Barbados.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said all newly green-listed places, with the exception of Malta and the addition of Israel and Jerusalem, have been added to the “green-watch list”, suggesting they could return to the more restricted amber list.

Mr Lees told BusinessLive: “We are pleased that there’s been some movement from the government that we’ve got more countries on the green list.

“However, and there is a however, and it’s around transparency. A number of countries have gone to the green-watch list, [but] we still don’t know what the criteria is for moving those countries on the green watch list potentially on to the amber list.

“Therefore, there is still that latent concern for people who are looking at booking over the course of the coming months over what the government will do next.

“We want to see greater transparency in that space, in terms of what are the criteria for every single country being determined by whatever colour, red amber, or green.”

Mr Shapps said the government would set out further details next month on plans that would mean fully vaccinated UK residents would not need to be isolated when returning from amber-listed countries, with this likely to be introduced “later in the summer”.

But leaders in the travel and aviation sectors have said the updates do not go far enough, with airline easyJet, which operates flights out of Bristol Airport, saying the timetable “simply isn’t ambitious enough”.

Mr Lees said: “We are nearly at the beginning of July, the key part of the summer season which the sector makes most of its money in, so absolutely, we need to see fast action from the government.”

EU member states, including Belgium, Spain and Greece, have begun issuing their citizens digital Covid passports to prove they have been fully vaccinated.

A deadline of July 1 is in place for other countries within the bloc to accept the documentation and allow people to enter without restrictions.

Mr Lees added: “Why can’t [the government] make a decision about double vaccinated people coming into the country? The EU has already made that decision, what’s the difference there? That’s coming into effect from July 1.”

In the UK, the travel industry staged a national day of action on Wednesday, June 23, to put pressure on the government to reopen the sector and provide financial support to businesses.

Employees and businesses gathered at Bristol Airport and outside the Palace of Westminster to call for the green list to be expanded.

Mr Lees said while workers in the sector may feel “heartened” by the latest additions to the green list, he could understand why there was a lack of trust in the government within the industry.

Speaking about the travel industry’s day of action, Mr Lees said it was “hugely empowering” speaking to other members of the airport team, including pilots, firefighters, and those working in the on-site restaurants and shops.

“They felt frustrated, really frustrated, that people weren’t listening. In particular, government wasn’t listening. They feel we have been sacrificed for political means,” he said.

“I think they will feel heartened the government has listened but, as I say, there is a caveat to that – heartened there are a few more countries on the green list but still no transparency.”

‘The government can make exceptions for UEFA – why’s that?’

Mr Lees was critical of plans to ease quarantine requirements for potentially around 2,000 VIP football delegates entering the UK for football matches at Wembley Stadium in the latter stages of the Euro 2020 tournament.

He said there was still a “lack of trust” on the government’s decision making, including around UEFA.

“[The government] can make exceptions for UEFA – why’s that, what’s going on?

“You can let 2,500 people into the country with relatively low restrictions but people can’t go and see friends, families, loved ones abroad, and they have different types of restrictions.

“Transparency is key for people. I can understand why people feel they haven’t got trust in the government at the moment.”

Mr Lees told BusinessLive that airlines flying out of Bristol Airport had seen a “massive” spike in searches for flights to destinations newly added to the green list, particularly to the Balearics.

“Our airlines have been putting on capacity within minutes of the announcement being made,” he said.

“Whether Majora, Minorca, Ibiza, it’s only a couple of hours away by flight. People are desperate for a well-earned break, whether they have been working in the social care sector or other parts of our economy. I think we will continue to see a very strong demand in the coming weeks.”

Mr Lees said the demand surge was reflected in the prices, adding: “I’ll be surprised if there are any seats available to Palma next week.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Our international travel policy is guided by one overwhelming priority – protecting public health.

“Decisions on traffic light allocations take into account a range of factors including genomic surveillance capability, transmission risk and Variants of Concerns, with data behind decisions to move countries on the list published online.

“We keep all measures under review and continue to engage with industry and international partners to explore how we can open international travel safely. Both tailored and wider economic support is still available to the sector, including the furlough scheme.”

‘There’s a real opportunity to minimise further job redundancies’

The airport chief warned it would take “several years” for the travel sector to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.

When asked by BusinessLive if he feared the industry could be braced for more job losses and the folding of airlines, Mr Lees said it was dependent on how quickly the government continued to relax the constraints on international aviation.

“If we see a progressive opening up, I think there’s a real opportunity to minimise further job redundancies.

“However, the furlough scheme ends at the end of September so the window of opportunity for government to balance the economy, balance jobs, set against what is an improving position in terms of vaccinations and infection rates, over the course of the coming weeks, is going to be a fine balance.

“It’s one the government is going to have to really lean in to in order to balance the two. But I like to think we can minimise the number.”

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Mr Lees was speaking after announcing Bristol Airport will become carbon neutral by the end of 2021 – four years ahead of schedule.

The airport is also planning to become the UK’s first net zero airport, without needing to offset, by 2030, which is 20 years before the Government’s own target.

During a business breakfast attended virtually and in person by industry leaders and politicians, including Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, Mr Lees estimated carbon neutral short-haul flights could begin by the early 2030s and no later than 2035.

He added: “I would love to see the first [carbon neutral] short haul commercial flight from Bristol Airport. Wouldn’t that be great? Using the expertise we have got in our region, we’ve got Airbus and engine manufacturers in the region.

“Why couldn’t we use those expertise to show the way forward for the aerospace sector? That would be a fantastic accomplishment. Why couldn’t we achieve that in the next 10 years?”

BusinessLive has contacted the Department for Transport for a comment.