Fewer Travel Restrictions Welcomed in the UK But This Should Have Been Done A While Ago: A 12-Month Catchup With Paul Charles (+Interview)

An aircraft is marshalled to a parking bay at Heathrow airport.
Photo: Heathrow Airport

LONDON – With the UK Government relaxing the rest of travel restrictions, some are saying that things could have been done better.

Around 12 months ago, AviationSource got to sit down with Paul Charles of The PC Agency, where we previously discussed what the UK Government needed to do next in the face of COVID-19.

12 months on from that, I got to sit down with him again to assess the landscape as well as the actions the government has taken since then.

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

The Interview

JF: Paul, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me again. It’s been 12 months since we hosted the AviationSource webinar where you discussed the UK Government’s roadmap to recovery from the perspective of the travel sector. 12 months on, what is your assessment now on the condition of the UK travel & aviation sector?

PC: Well, we’ve definitely improved the nature and environment of the sector early on in 2022, now that restrictions have been moved. So the government can be congratulated for certainly playing one of the leading roles compared with other countries in terms of removing restrictions and edging the UK out of the COVID environment that we have been in for the last two years.

And there are definitely stronger grounds for more optimism during 2022. If you look at bookings, they’re certainly stronger than they were for last year and for most of 2020.

So from that point of view, it’s a better environment for aviation generally. I’m sure we’ll talk about the headwinds that are obviously blowing around the industry and other sectors as well in the economy, but airlines have been able to rebound, they’ve been able to bring back staff out of the furlough schemes as well as bring back staff who have been made redundant.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

As well as this, airlines have been able to put their aircraft back into the air. So on the face of it, it’s a much more positive picture amid still a very tough backdrop to operate in.

JF: In the last 12 months, what aspects do you think the government could have done better in terms of obviously responding to the threat of the travel and air sector in the UK caused by COVID? Do you think restrictions were removed too late or do you think this was the perfect time to do so?

PC: The restrictions overall in the last year have been unpredictable. They have been impossible for most in the travel sector, if not all, to deal with.

Certainly, airlines and the unpredictability of things like the traffic light system which started in May last year and carried on until the end of 2021 were very difficult things to deal with.

You had countries changing color on a whim every week in some cases, and you cannot operate an airline or any travel business amid that sort of environment. So the policies overall were ill-thought-out.

They were a shambles and frankly hope we never see them again in our industry. They were not created for the longer-term health of the travel sector and they obviously had an enormous impact in terms of increasing losses in the industry.

There was too much government control in the whole decision-making process, and it certainly lasted too long. In most cases, the traffic light system lasted too long.

Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

The passenger locator form, which is now gone thankfully was around too long, far longer than was justifiably needed. The government just hung onto what power and control they could cling onto over consumers traveling, and that’s not what travel is about.

Travel is supposed to be enabling. It’s supposed to be freeing and now I hope the government has learned a lesson that many of those policies had no input at all in terms of helping the situation around COVID improve.

JF: With that in mind, IATA predicted that recovery could take place anywhere between next year and 2025. Do you think, based on the position that the UK is in currently, that this could take longer, or are IATA accurate in what they are saying?

PC: I was more optimistic obviously before the sad events in Ukraine started. I think many airlines were predicting actually that they could get back to intensive profitability by year-end.

The good news is that many airlines are actually intending to operate 100% of what they operated in 2019 by the Summer 2022 schedule.

So I think airlines are doing their best in a tough environment to get back to where they were and claw back some of those losses that they made previously and return to profit.

Clearly, Ukraine has changed the dynamic. It has led to some loss of confidence among consumers flying to certain areas or obviously flying over longer routings.

Not being able to fly over Russian airspace is going to increase fuel costs of the airlines and consumers are going to be very picky and choosy understandably about where they’re going to.

So you will see some areas benefit more than others. Maybe the Caribbean and Western parts of Europe such as Portugal will pick up in market share that will be lost by Turkey or Croatia or areas which are close to the war zone.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

So you are going to see a reshaping of recovery in the travel industry, and that will dictate where airlines put their fleets as well as frequency.

They may reduce frequencies to areas close by the war zone like Poland, Latvia, and Estonia, but they may increase Portugal in other places which are regarded as much safer.

I think as a whole, the industry is more optimistic.

It depends how the war of course plays out and we all hope it will be over soon and there’ll be a ceasefire, but if it drags on and on, it will cause an increased loss of confidence in travel to that region, which will some carriers more than others depending on their network.

JF: With the COVID & Ukraine crisis, there are slowly beginning to be calls made for more economic stimulus to cope with this. If we phrase that in the perspective of the aviation & travel sector, do you believe that the UK Government should have a role in supporting the sector as it did during the pandemic?

PC: I think as far as possible, governments should take off the shackles for most industries. They should let airlines recover, but recover with policies that aren’t going to create more difficulties for airlines in terms of selling tickets.

So they’ve got to help boost confidence, and that’s what the government’s role is. They need to help boost confidence in the economy so that people aren’t afraid to book and are quite happy to travel.

Now they’ve done that to their credit by removing all travel restrictions or COVID restrictions on travel from this week, which is fantastic news.

Clearly, they now need to not put policies in place which will make it more difficult for the airlines.

There’s a lot of lobbying going on at the moment from the airlines to make sure that the government is not instigating policies that are going to hurt the airlines more when there’s a cost of living crisis.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

Consumers are obviously looking at their pockets and wondering if they can afford to fly anywhere.

Hopefully, the Chancellor (Rishi Sunak) will be focusing on helping those who most need it during a cost of living crisis so that they can still have the option of having a holiday that they might badly need and want.

JF: With the Ukraine crisis particularly, we are beginning to see an increase in the price of fuel. With this in mind, do you think the consumers will feel the pinch as we enter the Summer 2022 schedule, or do you think the effects will be delayed until say next year for example?

PC: I think the talk of the cost of living crises, including higher energy bills, will put off some people in the mass market. There’s no doubt about it. Already, energy providers are sending out notices about the costs going up.

People are seeing in real-time, how their bills are due to go up from April when the price cap changes. So I think it will prevent some trips abroad, people who might take two holidays may take one a year instead.

Families might choose to staycation more in the UK rather than travel on a long-haul trip.

So I think you are going to see a shakedown here, where government needs to help and try and ideally reduce this squeeze on middle-income families, where you are seeing the growth of course.

And the resilience is the top end of the market, on the premium front. There are many people who have managed to save a lot of money during COVID.

They weren’t commuting, they weren’t buying sandwiches at lunchtime. They were staying at home and saving on going out and they’ve managed to save some money, which is fantastic for them.

And so they’re the ones that providers, airlines, store operators, and others need to focus on because they will still travel in premium cabins.

The other segment of the course that is doing really well is the private jet market, despite the clampdown on oligarchs and Russian connections.

There are still many people using private jets as well as all sorts of mechanisms to fly privately and that market is booming.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

JF: I saw you speak to Good Morning Britain this morning (March 18) and there was obviously the discussion of the biggest UK carriers taking the step forward to going maskless on flights. When I think of COVID, I think of the milestones that occurred during that point. I feel like this is one of those moments. How good of news is this?

PC: I think it’s a really important step forward because it shows that the airlines have the confidence to try and get back to normality and they don’t take these decisions lightly.

They have their own advisors, their own medical teams who inform them on the positives and negatives of mask-wearing. And they wouldn’t just make this up.

They’ve done their research and they can see that actually there’s no reason why they’re needed. I don’t need to wear a mask in a cinema anymore or a pub.

So why should I have to wear one on a plane when the air is filtered and changed every two minutes on modern aircraft. There has to be consistency in policymaking.

Clearly, it’s not a government requirement for face masks to be worn in the UK on planes. It’s airlines that have made that decision, but there are other countries that still require masks to be worn when you’re flying out of that destination.

So there’s going to be a period of adjustment where you can wear them on some, but nobody’s stopping you from wearing a mask. If you want to wear one, then wear one.

But I think the vast majority of people want to keep them off when you fly. I fly a lot and you see people who are not wearing them anyway because they are spending two hours drinking their coffee.

They really take a long sip over a long period of time so they’re not wearing them anyway. I think it’s important when you are flying to see the quality of the crew.

You choose an airline because of how smiley the crew is. And when they’re wearing masks, they can’t deliver the quality of service that they’re renowned for.

So without masks, I think the crew will be even better. You’ll have a much better experience on board.

And of course for families, whether young children who are flying for the first time or teenagers flying for the first time, you want them to enjoy the experience.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

So for a number of reasons I think we are learning with COVID. We have to move on. We can’t be stuck in the pandemic world that some health specialists would rather prefer we were in.

JF: It’s interesting you mention adjustment because as we know, the Summer 2022 season is probably going to be the most important for the travel sector in a few years. Do you think this adjustment of returning back to normal will be completed in time for this busy period or will it take longer?

PC: I think it depends on the approach of the United States.

They’ve extended the use of face masks until April 18th. So we may see a change after that point, and that could also mean a change in testing requirements to go into the U.S where they say that’s no longer needed, but it depends.

We’re seeing cases rise, especially in Europe at the moment, but we’re not necessarily seeing the hospitalizations increase dramatically. Deaths have thankfully not increased dramatically, so we are beginning to see more of a flu variant.

Whilst it can be worse for some people, the typical lean time on illness is around three to four days currently, which is what the flu does to you.

So with the variants moving on, so do we.

As I say, I think it’s important that if you want to wear a mask, because you feel strongly about them, then wear them, but not to force people to wear them, especially on a 12-hour flight to Asia where, you know, it’s very uncomfortable having them on for so long.

JF: With the resurgence of COVID happening in China, and from past experience, the spread could easily happen again through transport links, are we going to need to brace ourselves for another widespread wave of the virus or do you think it’s going to be better contained this time?

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5C (satellite 2) viewed from airfield, May 2011. David Dyson

PC: I hope not. I think governments have learned so much all over the world in terms of how to deal with COVID.

And if you look at past pandemics, thankfully, they don’t happen that often, but they tend to last about two years and we’ve come through that two-year stage.

And I think governments have learned the risks of COVID. They’ve learned its nuances during different seasons during the year and I think we’re in a position where we are going to be better fighting it and being with it.

I think it doesn’t matter which country in the world has a rise in cases, but we have to get back to a seamless approach globally if another wave was to occur.

We have to have a consistent approach from governments. And that was one of the things during the pandemic that governments were not very good at.

Working amongst themselves to create consistent policy, especially when it came to travel.

They got better at it towards the end of last year, but overall governments did not work together to help keep airlines moving and help keep the travel economy operating seamlessly as they should have done.

So one of the learnings I hope that comes out of this is that governments put in place the same policies everywhere should they need to.

If things get much worse then the fundamental starting point for governments at the moment should be to remove restrictions, enable travel, give responsibility to consumers to look after themselves, and get things moving again.

Ultimately jobs in the economy I think are more important.

JF: Moving back onto the domestic policy, what do you believe is now the priority for both the UK travel sector and also the UK Government together?

Photo: Heathrow Airport

PC: I think there needs to be a wholesale change in the way they work together. I think there needs to be a new approach.

Some of the organizations in place have been delivering some great work like ABTA but they were not able to convince the government to move on key policy issues during the pandemic as they weren’t being listened to.

So I think there’s been a loss of confidence between the government and certain parts of the travel sector that needs rebuilding. I think ideally there should be a new body that represents the whole of travel.

Not just travel agents or not just airlines and not just tour operators.

I think there should be one body that represents everything about travel that is able to talk transparently and with the government as well as also educating parts of government that are not sure how the travel industry works.

And that would make a massive difference. We should get government ministers, but also civil servants to spend a few weeks within the travel businesses.

Let’s have a minister learning with an airline, how they operate and how they work for a week. Let’s have them on the ground.

This will enable policy decisions to be made with real knowledge, and that’s what was lacking during the pandemic.

So I think there’s a massive opportunity now to improve the level of education within policymakers, departments, and within the civil service overall.

JF: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers regarding the travel & aviation sector?

PC: How long have you got James? I could go on all day here! I think it is that core for consistency that we need. We need to get back to improving through digital means and seamless travel, which groups like the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) have been calling for.

Photo: Heathrow Airport

Well before the pandemic started, we still needed to make traveling that much easier.

Because so many people were put off over a two-year period, we’ve got to rebuild that trust as an industry with the consumer and especially business travelers who as you know, have got used to Zoom & Microsoft Teams.

So we’ve got to get them back.

I think the sooner we can put in place the technology in a greater way, the sooner we can use eye recognition, fingerprint recognition et cetera, and more on our travels to make it a seamless journey, the better, because it makes traveling more fun. And that’s what we’ve got to do.

The fun was taken out of it. It became labored, it became difficult and we’ve got to now move to the other extreme and make it seamless and fun again.

And I think that’s the challenge for the industry now, how quickly can it move forward over the next two years to do that? And in turn, this can help bring greater profitability among airlines and airports especially.

So if we can do that and move quickly and work with the government on introducing these sorts of things faster, I think it will happen faster because all of us have got used to apps during the pandemic and that would be a great thing for the industry to at least develop from and prove that it has learned a lot.

JF: Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me once again!


Photo: Heathrow Airport

Compared to the discussion that I had with Paul last year at our webinar, it remains clear that things have changed for the better as we look to come out of this pandemic.

However, the new threat of Ukraine does have the potential to make the problems of the last two years last longer, and that is something governments have to be careful of and learn from their previous experiences in conflict and pandemics alike.

With the cost of living on the rise, and Russia not seeming to be backing down, this could be the new negative life we live in for the time being until a solution is met. It will be interesting to see where the next 12 months will go for the sector, but all we can do is sit back, hold tight, and hope for a smooth landing.

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