The British government will hold talks in the coming days with the aviation industry as calls grow for state intervention to bail out airlines hit by a drop in passengers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said on Monday that he would meet airline executives this week to discuss their calls for government help.
Peter Norris, the chairman of Virgin Group, has urged the government to provide up to £7.5bn of emergency support to rescue the UK aviation industry, which has been decimated by coronavirus. According to an airline industry official, Mr Norris is sending a letter this week warning the prime minister, chancellor and transport secretary that the entire aviation sector — airlines and airport operators — faces pressing financing issues.
Mr Shapps said there would be an “aviation summit” this week for him to take the “collective response” of the airlines. He added that a committee led by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, would meanwhile consider what measures could or should be taken.
“There are very many ways we can help,” Mr Shapps told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. “There are a variety of different asks coming through which is why I’m meeting the airlines this week. But they are clearly at the forefront of this because global travel has come close to a halt in many areas.”
His comments come as three global airline alliances — Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance — representing nearly 60 airline companies called on governments and stakeholders to extend extraordinary support to the industry, including suspending regulations around the use of flight slots.
Some governments have already begun talks with airlines over possible state aid. Wopke Hoekstra, the Dutch finance minister, on Sunday said the Netherlands would do “everything it takes” to keep Air France-KLM operating. Meanwhile, the French government was also preparing to come to the aid of Air France-KLM group.
Mr Shapps pointed out that he had already sought to relax the so-called 80/20 rule that forces airlines to fly nearly-empty flights to reserve their slots.
The transport minister said he would also consider helping Britain’s railway network, which has been hit by the epidemic. “Railways have definitely seen a big drop-off last week by 18-20 per cent in the number of passengers and we are working with them closely,” he said. “We need to look at what we can do to sustain them.”
He added that there was no more point in running “ghost trains” than ghost planes, suggesting that franchise obligations on private railway companies to run a minimum number of services could be relaxed.
“It’s clearly an exceptional moment in time, an international crisis, and we need to be flexible as a country to react to that,” he said.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union — which represents many airport workers — has written to the government urging stronger intervention to help the industry.
“If you do not take urgent action to support the aviation industry in the UK, there is absolute certainty that tens of thousands of jobs will be put at risk, and the industry will be unable to resume effectively once this health crisis has passed,” he wrote.
Mr McCluskey called for extra government funding, including contributions to cover workers’ pay, the possibility of taking financial stakes in airlines or airports, the extension of government loans and a delay in the payment of taxes and duties.
Mr Shapps, meanwhile, said that elderly people would soon face calls from the government to self-isolate for a period of months, but clarified that they would still be able to leave their homes as long as they avoided contact with other people. “We will ask people to do that as and when the moment is right . . . the fact that people know this is in the action plan . . . I think is important.”