LONDON – The next couple of days will see the UK Government announce its roadmap to restoring international air travel, and more importantly the UK aviation industry itself.
The findings from The Global Travel Taskforce will be vital to determine what the timetable for travel to return will be.
Meet Paul Charles, the CEO of The PC Agency. Paul has been at the forefront of the coronavirus crisis, appearing as a leading commentator and adviser about the travel and tourism sector, which has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Before founding The PC Agency, Paul was Director of Communications for Virgin Atlantic and key adviser to Sir Richard Branson.
At the latest AviationSource Roundtable a couple of weeks ago, we got to sit down with Paul and other esteemed guests of the travel industry to discuss the roadmap to recovery and what the UK Government needs to do now going forward as well as what the Summer may look like.
JF: Paul, thank you very much for taking the time to do this roundtable with AviationSource. Our first question is, and obviously has quite an obvious answer, how important is it for the UK Government to give the green light for Summer travel to the UK airline industry?
PC: It’s been a tough 12 months for the industry. It’s been a very difficult period because there has not been enough guidance or strategic guidance as to how the industry can reopen. I think one of the issues all along has been governments around the world understandably looking after their own borders and looking after their own citizens, rather than coordinating as best they can.
Who would want to be a prime minister or a state leader during this sort of crisis? They’ve had no training to plan for this. Even the best crisis scenarios had not planned properly for this. That being said, for the summer, we need a roadmap. I sense we are going to see a roadmap within a roadmap if you like issued by the Global Travel Task Force on the 5th of April.
It’ll be a staged reopening of the travel sector from aviation to cruise, to hotels, which will be a roadmap within Boris’ roadmap. I don’t think the Prime Minister wants to go back on any of his dates as he’s laid them out very clearly. It will be a staged reopening of course but it is something that won’t happen overnight.
JF: Should consumers be worried at this point about their holidays being cancelled in the Summer?
PC: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. To the government’s credit, they have consulted quite widely across the travel industry over the last few weeks. It seems that they have learned from their lessons of not consulting the industry and have now been able to hear different perspectives on reopening.
One of the eight workstreams in the Global Travel Taskforce is to engage with like-minded countries which are bringing down their infection rates or managing them through understanding possible new variants, but also widely, rolling out the vaccine program. So on the face of it, when you look at the countries that are like-minded, you are looking for countries that are in the top 10 for vaccine rollouts like the U.S and Israel.
I think you will see some sort of pilot schemes emerging, maybe initially with some of those countries, meaning that from May to early June, this will enable travel to get going again. And those pilot schemes may involve showing vaccination certificates or showing a negative test proof at both ends of the journey.
So you do a pre-departure test, maybe a test on arrival, or certainly a test after two or three days, and then the same on the return journey. So ironically, you may see America opening up before much of Europe this summer because of the success of the Biden vaccination rollout, especially with most American adults being vaccinated by May 2021. So by that point, their infection rates will be much lower.
They are then going to be on course to be in a similar position to the UK. So that’s what I think you are going to see be outlined by the task force. And then you’ll see a combination of a traffic light scheme alongside vaccination certificates and also testing. I think that the vaccination certificates will not be mandatory so the negative test requirement will be the solid element needed to travel.
JF: For those in the UK that want to go holidaying in the far-East such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand etc., how long do you think it will be before we can start flying to those areas of the world?
PC: Such countries will possibly be in the second or third phase for reopening later this year. I would expect some of them to open up from October, November onwards, which has been backed up with the timing of Qantas wanting to restart services to the UK at around that time.
This all again depends on the way the traffic light system is enacted by governments going forward. As we get towards the Winter this year, governments will get really good data about these vaccination programs.
I think the traffic light system will see a handful of countries go green early on, with the majority going red and amber, and then they will all move and switch between color craft categories as the summer goes on. That will then give a good indication to consumers when they can go to those certain areas of the world.
JF: On the topic of vaccination passports, what is your opinion of that concept? Is it something that we most definitely need to be taking into the industry in order for recovery to kind of speed up and gain the momentum that it needs to?
PC: I myself think that the term for vaccination passports is the wrong one to use. It should be deemed as a certificate or a pass if you like. Imagine it in the same frame as a boarding pass.
You would go onto your airline app. Let’s say you are traveling to New York and you download your boarding pass. Just think of the vaccination pass in the same way. So the question is how can the app safely get the data from your medical records without storing that data either, especially with GDPR and other elements like that?
I am confident that the technology can be easily implemented and safely done too. I think that’s why it’s fundamental that the certificate is not mandatory because there are so many people who can’t have a vaccine for example, whether it be they are pregnant or for medical reasons, or because they live in a country where the vaccine rollout has not happened.
There are a lot of people in the world. You won’t have the opportunity to get a vaccine this year, so you can’t make it mandatory because you’re going to really restrict travel as a result. On top of this, especially in the UK, a lot of young people won’t get the vaccine necessarily before the summer due to the prioritization of the population.
So I think that’s the sort of backdrop to how it’s going to work. Certain airlines are working on other versions, but let’s see what develops, but I think at the end of the day, it’s going to be down to whichever airline app you use and whether that airline has created its own or worked with others on integrating that system.
JF: Back to the U.S element of recovery and how it ties in with the UK. Aer Lingus recently announced the opening of a base out of Manchester Airport, with the intention of operating transatlantic services using its Airbus A321LR and A330 aircraft. With this in mind, does Aer Lingus know something that the industry doesn’t, and could this opening be the beginning in the formation of potential bilateral agreements between the UK and the US to open up travel corridors?
PC: For the sake of transparency, Aer Lingus is a client of mine. So obviously I’m going to agree with their move. It’s great to see them creating jobs in this industry. So it’s good news that they have been given permission to fly from July 29.
With President Biden suggesting that America could open up by Independence Day, it depends on whether the vaccination program continues as successfully in the U.S as the U.K program is doing. From there, you have got the two like-minded countries where it should be possible to establish such corridors.
So that’s why I’m confident about the U.S opening up strongly this summer. Of course, if the U.S can be opened up, then that’s a major step forward for the UK aviation industry because of the reliance by Aer Lingus, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and others on the transatlantic routes, which will bring back jobs and the survival of many airlines.
JF: As well as there being the ‘America Question’, there is also the ‘South African’ question, particularly with that variant of the virus already setting its place in the UK. Do you believe in the short-term that travelling to South Africa will be a reality to consumers?
PC: With the South African variant, there are two schools of thought on whether it is as dangerous as some people might think. With that in mind, there are people that I know in the country who are moving around as normal, getting back to work, and back to business.
Now, it’s questionable whether the infection rate is being effectively monitored and whether the true numbers are known. But, you have got to think about the fast pace that science has moved over the past few months. Amazing vaccines have been developed, and every week there are major developments in identifying such variants. So I believe that South Africa will be accessible again by the Summertime.
I think the UK Government is understandably treading cautiously because they’re still collecting data on the efficacy of the vaccines, but by May, I think we’re going to be in a completely different, but positive position. So that’s why I’m more optimistic about things opening up gradually by that point.
JF: One critique to this traffic light system could be the perspective of chaos if certain countries are changed from green to amber or red and so forth. There is obviously the fear that such a status may change before the consumer is due to arrive back in the country and may be subjected to isolation as a result as well as the fear of testing positive too. So do you anticipate “green travel” to be as easy for the consumer to travel as it was before the pandemic started?
PC: Let’s dissect and break it down a bit. First of all, the traffic light system, which obviously we started in a fairly rudimentary way last August has served thousands of people and has helped them travel.
I showed this system to the government in the same period and have continued to do so a number of times since. So it’s good to hear that the UK government is now looking at this from the perspective of the Global Travel Task Force. I think the way it will work is that you will have Red, Amber, and Green, and then you’ll have a gray color, which would be due to not enough data being available about a particular country, which is similar to what the EU has been doing.
So there’ll be some countries in the gray category that you can’t work out, especially whether their data is good or complete enough. In the Green Category, you will have those who have a strong vaccine program and low infection rate, but you will still need to take a test.
I think everybody coming back to the UK or entering the UK in the summer will have to take a test. The cost of such tests is decreasing rapidly, which will make it easier for consumers to purchase.
So don’t think Green is going to be clear as it will not be like how it was before the pandemic started. I think Amber will be a combination of a lateral flow test and self-isolation for 10 days, which I believe the government will stick with.
Then I think sadly with the Red, you will be hotel quarantined because I can’t see the government taking this away at the moment, especially if you are coming from high-variant high-risk countries such as Brazil or South Africa.
This of course will be expensive for those traveling from those countries, with hotel quarantine coming in at around £1600 or whatever the cost is for 10 nights in an airport hotel. So regardless of where you travel in the green list, you will still likely have to take a test on your return.
JF: Do you believe that the suspected third wave that is beginning to take shape in Europe will hinder any of the results that the task force has produced up to this point?
PC: I think the task force is not going to be able to go out there and say that everything is fantastic and that we are going to open up everything for May 17th. I think the high rates in Europe have obviously caused issues in terms of what ideally it was going to come out with when Boris first announced the date for the task force to display its findings.
But that’s why I think you’re going to see more data reliance rather than date reliance. And that’s why the traffic light system is so crucial because essentially they know that if France, for example, which may well go on the red list with some other countries, if France is about 100 cases per 100,000 of the population, then you know it is in the red and that when it goes down to 30-40 per 100,000, then they may consider putting it into Green.
And then it’s clear. You will know then how countries will switch between color status based on the data that is showing each week in terms of their infections. I’m very confident that Europe will get better.
First, the vaccine rollout will pick up by the end of April. Secondly, Europe was in this position in March, April last year. And then as the weather got warmer and lockdowns had their impact, Europe started to see its infections fall quite rapidly by mid to end of June. And then it opened up of course, around that time.
So I think you will see something similar this time where infections fall, but they’re going to have a tough few weeks ahead. But from mid to late May, you are going to see the infection rates starting to fall quite sharply.
And that will bode well for July, August when it comes to the opening up of different countries. I’m confident for that reason that we’re going to see travel grow. I think the task force will be able to rely on the traffic lights to give an indication to consumers about when things are going to open up. The point of the system is to provide consumer clarity, and that’s what the government wants to do.
Consumer confidence is one of the workstreams in the taskforce. So if they can give consumers that confidence by the traffic light system, combined with vaccine certificates and lateral flow testing, then they can ensure there’s a great recovery badly needed for the center of the summer.
JF: What about the timing of any changes to the traffic light system? Will there be enough notice this time?
PC: Last Summer, of course, there was so much distress caused by the 24-hour notice, then 36-hour notice of changes. It hurt a lot of people, not only financially in terms of having to change their flights at the last minute, but also in terms of stress and anxiety about how they’re going to get home. So holidays were ruined as a result, and I don’t think the government intended to ruin people’s holidays, but I don’t think they will want to go through that again.
I think that they have learned the lesson, especially with several of us who have been feeding into this task force have been making the point about the fact that these sort of corridors in the future will require more notice to be given to consumers.
But equally, you have got the Chief Medical Officer (Chris Whitty) and others in the government saying, “Well, hang on a moment”. If a country switches at short notice, this is because the infections have changed dramatically.
So the task force has got to find a balance here between helping consumers who will be traveling for business or for leisure or to see family. So the medical needs obviously need to be considered in this sense. I think that the tables on the traffic light system will be updated weekly, in line with Europe and with the CDC in the United States.
So in this case, there should be a week’s notice for consumers before they have to get back to the UK. I think that would make a big difference. I would also hope that the traffic light systems align in some way with the travel sector, so that airlines are more prepared this year, knowing that every Thursday let’s say, that there is no update to the traffic light system.
But if changes need to be made, maybe the airlines should be capping the amount that consumers would pay if they have to change their flights at the last minute. I know airlines won’t really be in favor of that though, because obviously, they’re a commercial business and that they have to make money. But maybe there could be some form of agreement with the government where airlines could cap the amount charged per seat.
But I think the most likely message that will come from the government rather than this happening is that you are going on holiday at your own risk and that any financial pain that comes from such changes is down to the consumer and not the government.
JF: What about specific islands when it comes to the traffic light system? For example, if Greece goes red, should that include the islands of that country, especially if the infection rates are lower than on the mainland?
PC: I think they will want to separate the islands from the mainland again. I know there’s a lot of lobbying from both of the Greek and Spanish tourism authorities ensuring that there is differentiation in handing out the red status to countries with islands.
I think the government will realize that when people travel, it’s to regional areas, such as the Balearics in Spain, etc., so I would expect the system to split up regional areas.
I think it is worth saying at this point, I think that’s the BREXIT effect, and obviously, we are still only three, four months into the withdrawal and we’ve yet to see the impact this summer of a lot of people travelling into Europe. I think there will be a lot of people being put off from traveling into Europe due to long passport queues, as well as the uncertainty behind the AstraZeneca vaccine row as well.
So I think that other countries will pick up higher market share, especially areas such as the US, Turkey, and the Caribbean. Having those long queues will have massive knock-on effects for the future, which will mean Europe suffers as a result. So we also need to see what the BREXIT question holds as well in regards to this too.
JF: The UK Government has recently implemented a £5,000 fine for those who try to go abroad without a good enough reason, casting more doubt within the holiday market. What is your take on this? Is it right to do this now when arguably it could have been done a while ago? What is your take also on the other actions taken out by the Government?
PC: During this pandemic, the border closures have been a very difficult area of policy in regards to pleasing everyone. However, if they had clamped down earlier on borders during the first wave, then it might not have been so bad, but frankly, they would have faced uproar from the travel industry, especially at such a critical time.
I personally think that the government did the right thing at the time. They didn’t know enough about the virus and were trying to keep trade flowing. Boris Johnson is somebody who believes in liberty. Maybe that’s hard to believe with some of the policies since but generally believes in that. I think it was the right thing at the right time.
With regards to the £5,000 fine, it’s meant to be obviously a disincentive to travel as is the declaration to travel form providing all these layers of complexity. It is designed to stop people from traveling at the moment. And I think during such a difficult phase of the pandemic for so many countries, then it’s understandable that tougher measures would be put in place. I don’t agree with hotel quarantine. I think that is a retrograde step.
I think it would be much better for government to enforce home quarantine more. I honestly believe it’d be better for the government to put more resources and money into enforcing self-isolation than the effort that’s gone into setting up hotel quarantine. The time is now for unraveling those layers of complexity, which is what the task force must deal with. I just hope that they don’t fall into the trap of thinking these are measures that need to last a long time.
JF: The pandemic has shown even more light on climate change. Does the roadmap to recovery for aviation consider this at all, or has reduction in carbon emissions become a secondary consideration for airlines to getting flights back in the air again?
PC: I think the policies of airlines are changing when it comes to sustainability. They’re starting to change anyway. In the majority of airlines, not at all. It was something that was starting to change before the pandemic. We’re seeing some airlines be far more advanced than others. There are developments such as sustainable aviation fuel and other airlines are investing in hybrid-electric aircraft like Finnair and easyJet.
If this comes to fruition, then this would be an incredible move forward. So you’re seeing some do a lot more in this space. Airlines are doing things such as reducing the weight of their aircraft dramatically, whether it be through the removal of magazines and replacing it with digital content, with seats getting lighter and newer aircraft themselves becoming more carbon fiber-based.
So many airlines are really starting to tackle this, and I think they are using the pandemic as another reason to build back better, but there’s so much further to go and it needs governments to encourage the airlines through changes in infrastructure.
JF: Which UK airline do you believe has the most difficult path to recovery going forward?
PC: If the U.S doesn’t open up, it’s obviously going to be tough for someone like Virgin Atlantic who relies on transatlantic traffic. Obviously, all transatlantic carriers will have issues, but I think the U.S will open up and the airlines are prepared to get that revenue into their balance sheet, certainly at some point in the second half of 2021.
Short-haul is going to be interesting because I think that is going to be prioritized more than long-haul. So if you are a short-haul carrier, then you will do very well. As traffic bounces back, the demand for short-haul is more present.
There is enormous, pent-up demand for travel. A lot of people are lucky enough to have saved money. So they’ll use that money to fly, so the bounce back will be very strong indeed.
JF: Your company, The PC Agency, has been incredibly active over the last year or so. From a PR perspective, what do you think is the best strategy to build consumer confidence in flying again? Which tourism boards have been active in trying to build such confidence and would be your advice for bolstering that going forward?
PC: I think consumer confidence is often built on the back of pricing in the travel sector. Whilst it will be beneficial to have attractive pricing, the irony this year is that because of the pent-up demand, consumers are already prepared to pay more, so prices are going more. What is going to bring back consumers is political confidence.
It is ultimately the prime minister downwards which will enable this. Consumer confidence is building up already because of the timetable being given, which we should all applaud. It is finally happening and the timetable is being stuck to. Johnson doesn’t want to renege on his promise to the people about a roadmap and what a great leader he will be shown to be. If you can deliver that roadmap and a successful vaccine program, then the PR side is all about building reputation and confidence. The PM’s reputation obviously took a hammering in the first phase of the pandemic through to January this year.
Since he’s been rebuilding his reputation with a new team in Downing Street around him, it seems to be at the moment holding up as opinion polling is suggesting that he is delivering. Obviously, there are some areas which they’re not and also the fact that people disagree with that statement too. It’s inevitable in government, but you build your reputation through delivery and delivering on a promise. And that’s very much what public relations is about in travel.
What I am advising to a lot of our clients is that you have got to be flexible. You have got to be reasonable and understanding. Of course, try and make a profit. But for tourism boards, who are not necessarily always commercial organizations, it is about showcasing responsibility in your destination, what you are doing to make things safe for consumers who will be traveling this year.
We’re in a totally different world now. It’s been exhausting for many leaders, not just in travel, but in every sector, but they will come out of this in the strongest shape. If they focus on change, it’s not going back to how it was pre-pandemic. And the sooner everybody realizes that, the better. There are those that are starting up new businesses that are changing their strategies as they are realizing that they have to be more dynamic.
They have got to be fair to consumers. They have got to be innovative. The same applies to politicians who to their credit are trying to build back better in many cases, whether it’s on the sustainability front, whether it’s on the travel front etc. These are all great things to do when the pandemic is in place because people are more minded to do it. They want to see a better world because the pandemic was probably created on the back of a world that was deteriorating.
JF: With that in mind, and I’ve asked a lot of people in the industry this question, and they’ve all given me completely different answers. Those in the industry have cited 2024 as the year of recovery. Do you align with this viewpoint or do you think recovery can occur earlier or later?
PC: I think 2022 will be the comeback year for most of travel. There are some parts of travel, which will see a pickup towards the end of this year. I’m thinking some long-haul specialists who operate and focus on winter destinations for that aspect of recovery. I think in the Caribbean, for example, we’ll have a strong winter at the end of 2021 going into 2022.
If the citizens of those countries have been vaccinated twice, then they shouldn’t bring variants or infection into those islands. So this would bode well for the likes of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways as well as Aer Lingus to Barbados who will benefit as a result from a potentially strong period.
It depends on which parts of the world you look at. I think from a UK perspective, Asia is going to be as popular. So it’s going to be interesting to see how long it takes for long-haul travel to Asia to pick up. I think Asia will benefit hugely from domestic and regional tourism, but it’s going to take a lot longer for the UK market share to pick up. If you speak to companies already, they have already received strong bookings for 2022.
If you think about the Summer season for this year, they’ve had to put two years into one, especially after loads of holidays were canceled last year. They are having to somehow blend the two. So it should be a busy summer if restrictions allow.
JF: Earlier, we briefly touched up on Qantas. Last year, they became well-known for the implementation of “no vaccine, no entry onboard”. Do you believe this is a good message to be giving to the industry or do you believe this will be the norm in the future?
PC: I think that Alan Joyce, the CEO of the airline, is a fantastic leader. I respect most of his decisions. Joyce has most likely taken this action due to consumer research, where most, if not all customers are wanting to know if the plane they are boarding is fully vaccinated, especially if you are spending a long-time on board, particularly on the Heathrow to Perth route, where you are spending 17-18 hours onboard.
It’s understandable. I think consumers would want to be with like-minded passengers, who’ve been vaccinated, but the problem is you can’t apply that everywhere. There are countries who sadly are not able to afford a vaccine rollout program on the same scale as the UK or US. I don’t believe in restricting travel that way. I think travel should be as seamless and as open and transparent as possible. And that’s why testing has to play a part to enable people to get on a plane and travel. If every airline CEO took the Qantas approach, then it will reduce the numbers who are flying substantially and that won’t help the sector build back to profitability quickly.
I would say it could work on some long-haul flights to islands like Australia. But for mass airline traffic, I think it’s too restrictive and equally for younger people where it may take them much longer to be vaccinated. It would be a shame that they’re not able to travel. It’s understandable to keep the virus out, but it will not work on every route.
JF: To conclude, what is your message to the industry, the consumer, and to everyone that is involved in the roadmap to recovery?
PC: I think be optimistic and confident, as I have tried to be. I think we are through the worst, certainly from a UK perspective. We’re seeing the roadmap here, and we are very much getting to the next stage out of this crisis. I think the working from home element is going to come around more especially where employees, have become more productive. It’s what I have seen in my company and my staff.
I think we will see a much nicer sector, a nicer world emerge because we are all in this together and everybody’s been through lockdowns together. So there will be much to talk about when people do get back together.
Let’s have more seamless travel. Why do we need to check-in at the airport three hours before a flight? We need to push for more digital and innovative solutions, where we just do everything from our phones when traveling through airports.
Overall, I am very optimistic. And I think everyone reading should be. Whilst it is sad that so many people have lost their lives, I think the world will be a better place because the science is better. The data will be better and we will emerge more resilient.
This extensive interview shows what the Summer could look like, both in the worst and best cases. Paul is definitely correct to be optimistic about what the next few months will hold for the UK aviation industry.
All eyes will now be on the UK Government as the Global Travel Taskforce releases its findings of when international travel gets that all-important green-light, with the hope that the traffic light system will iron out any problems experienced last year.
What is clear right now is that we need to reopen the industry. And it needs to happen immediately. Otherwise, the government will be dealing with a very different collapse looking ahead.