UK aviation chiefs urge swift opening of travel corridor with US

The chief executives of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow airport have called for a travel corridor with the US to be opened as soon as next month, in a push to restart the industry’s most lucrative routes following more than a year of disruption.

In a rare joint plea to UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the bosses of the three companies said rapid vaccination programmes meant restarting transatlantic flying should be a priority when borders open.

“There is a great opportunity here to focus on the corridor between the US and the UK . . . the US has a hugely successful vaccination programme,” said Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic.

Johnson on Monday warned it was still too early to book a foreign holiday, and non-essential international travel is banned until May 17 at the earliest.

When borders do reopen, the UK will introduce a traffic light system to grade destinations on vaccination progress, Covid-19 infection rates and the prevalence of virus variants.

With their most important routes on the line, the travel industry is pushing for the US to be put on the “green list” immediately, which would mean returning passengers would not have to quarantine, although they would still need to take Covid-19 tests before departure and after arrival.

Any reopening would also require a shift in Washington, where a Trump-era ban on most passengers arriving from the UK is still in force.

“If we can create a framework for travel between the UK and US, and open up that market, that would set a benchmark that others could follow,” said Sean Doyle, BA’s chief executive.

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Both the US and UK have been among the fastest to roll out vaccinations, according to the Financial Times’s vaccine tracker. The UK has administered 55.2 vaccine doses per 100 residents, with the US on 49.8.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic disrupted aviation, 22m passengers travelled between the US and UK, nearly 10 per cent of global air travel, and the routes are worth $9bn to carriers on both sides of the Atlantic, according to industry calculations seen by the FT.

North America made up more than two-thirds of Virgin’s flight network before the pandemic hit, while BA was the largest long-haul carrier into the region in 2019, with flights to more than 30 destinations.

Those schedules have reduced to a trickle over the past year because of tough border controls and the collapse of business travel.

“The UK can’t sit back and see its vital trading routes sitting idle,” said John Holland Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive.

Despite Johnson’s caution on travel, Doyle is optimistic that travel will be able to resume to at least some destinations from May 17. “The British public should not lose hope, we remain optimistic this will happen,” he said.

UK airlines have been flying skeleton schedules this year, and are heavily reliant on borders reopening in time for the busy summer season.

But Holland-Kaye warned there was a “genuine risk” that no material increase in travel would happen until after the summer. “That, of course, will be too late for the many UK travel companies that rely on summer holidays,” he said.

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