US and UK airline bosses call for transatlantic reopening

Executives from the US’s and UK’s biggest airlines have issued a rare joint appeal for Joe Biden and Boris Johnson to use this week’s G7 meeting to reopen transatlantic air travel.

They also said they were prepared to back vaccination and testing requirements instead of quarantine to allow this to happen. Showing proof of vaccination to participate in everyday activities has caused controversy in some parts of the US.

The aviation industry has been unsuccessfully pushing for a transatlantic air corridor for a year, but it argues that the high vaccination rates in both the UK and US mean it is now safe to create one.

The unlikely alliance of executives, who are used to working in a fiercely competitive market, are hoping that restarting transatlantic travel will pave the way for a wider reopening.

“We are going to open up the world,” said Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines chief executive. “It is going to happen, and this is the corridor to get started.”

“There is much more at stake here than a holiday, it is about trade, visiting friends and relatives, and getting back and doing business and employing people,” said Sean Doyle, chief executive of British Airways.

The north Atlantic is one of the most lucrative parts of the air travel market, particularly because it attracts business travellers willing to pay for premium seats. The routes were worth an estimated $9bn in revenue to US and UK carriers before the pandemic in effect closed them down, according to industry data.

Left to right: Sean Doyle, British Airways chief; John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow airport chief; and Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic chief, on a closed runway at Heathrow airport London © Steve Parsons/PA

Reopening mass travel between the UK and US would require the Biden administration to lift a ban on non-Americans travelling directly from the UK to the US. The UK would also need to put the US on its “green list” of safe foreign travel destinations, meaning arriving passengers would not have to quarantine.

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Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, wrote to lobby group BritishAmerican Business last month and said re-establishing normal air travel between the UK and US was “a priority”.

“I am eager to lay the groundwork for an Anglo-American framework which can support a sustainable return to travel,” Shapps wrote in the letter seen by the Financial Times.

UK government officials said Johnson would raise the idea of opening up travel with Biden and other G7 leaders at the meeting in Cornwall later this week.

But one British official told the FT last week that “the best we are likely to get” is a relaxation of the US policy to coincide with the country’s Independence Day holiday on July 4.

The airline executives said they all would support requiring proof of vaccination and testing for the unvaccinated, to lift other restrictions on travel between the US and UK.

“We’re prepared for vaccinations, or testing, or both to get this started,” said Doug Parker, American Airlines chief executive.

Airline travel in the US has surged as vaccination rates have increased, with the number of travellers in the US over Memorial day weekend, the traditional start to the summer holidays, rising to nearly 2m a day. But UK airlines are not cushioned by a similar domestic market.

Roger Dow, chief executive of the US Travel Association, noted that “nothing happens until someone gets on a plane”.

“The politicians understand that, or the G7 would have been conducted on Zoom,” added Duncan Edwards, chief executive of BritishAmerican Business.

Additional reporting by George Parker


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