Airlines have given a lukewarm welcome to the government’s announcement of another travel taskforce – this time aimed at restarting transatlantic travel.
The group will explore options for resuming flights at scale on what was once the busiest and most lucrative intercontinental route network in the world.
Direct transatlantic travel from the UK to the US for non-Americans has been banned since March 2020 by a series of presidential proclamations – first by Donald Trump, then by Joe Biden.
Some British people who have work in the US or are desperate to reach loved ones spend two weeks in Mexico to “launder” their record before continuing north.
Going east from the US to the UK, travellers are required to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival. Opening up transatlantic aviation meaningfully would require the US being moved from the “amber list” to the quarantine-free “green list”.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, representing leading British carriers, said: “It’s positive news but time is really ticking and every day that we don’t have an air bridge with the US costs us £32m in lost economic activity.
“It’s our most important trading and tourism link by far and we would urge a redoubling of efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to get an agreement in place.”
Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, Shai Weiss, said: “The creation of the Atlantic Taskforce is positive recognition of the importance of the UK-US travel corridor and a first step towards reopening the skies. But in the absence of a definitive time frame, again falls short of providing airlines, businesses and consumers with much needed certainty.”
Other senior figures have demanded dates for the resumption of transatlantic flights at scale.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “This is the latest in a long line of Travel Taskforces which so far have only wreaked further devastation on our industry.
“Jobs won’t be saved, nor livelihoods protected, until we are given a certainty on dates for the resumption of international travel.
A key recommendation of the most recent Global Travel Taskforce report was to have a “green watchlist” to avoid sudden changes in a country’s quarantine status. But this was ditched by ministers last Thursday when the only significant country on the green list, Portugal, was moved to amber with only four days’ notice, triggering chaotic scenes as holidaymaker cut short their trips to get home.
Tim Alderslade of Airlines UK said: “It is clear from the actions last week that the current traffic light framework established by the Global Travel Taskforce does not reflect the risk of travel nor facilitate safe travel as it should.
“No markets of any meaningful size are on the green list today, with the removal of Portugal likely to destabilise the sector further and undermine consumer sentiment and bookings going forward.
The first Global Travel Taskforce, chaired by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, produced the “test to release” option to end quarantine early with an extra test on day five onwards. But that was overshadowed by the imposition of a 19-week ban on international leisure travel.
Other recommendations of the report published in November 2020 have failed to materialise – including exemptions for short business visits, and allowing “safe transit” through aviation hubs regarded as “high risk,” such as Dubai – currently on the red list.
The senior Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, tweeted: “If this is anything like your existing travel “taskforce,” Grant Shapps, which has resulted in British people having fewer travel freedoms than Americans or fellow Europeans and fewer than we did last summer, I wouldn’t recommend anyone gets their hopes up.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies