British Airways chief calls UK 'crazy' for not exploiting success of vaccination drive

Sean Doyle: Britain must seize opportunity to reopen UK-US travel corridor

Sean Doyle, chief executive officer of British Airways, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA (IAG), speaks during a news conference in Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport in London, U.K., on Monday, May 17, 2021. After a year of false starts, rogue virus strains and vaccine drama, Brits are finally able to travel again, if only to a handful of green list destinations that wont require quarantine on return. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle said the UK government was "crazy" not to reap the success of the country's vaccination drive and reopen travel routes to low-risk countries.

Mr Doyle said the UK economy risked being “left behind” Europe and America because the government’s strict travel restrictions could stagnate the aviation sector and, in turn, the wider pandemic recovery.

The BA boss, who took the reins of the UK carrier in October last year, urged the UK government to “seize the moment pretty quickly” and reopen borders to low-risk destinations such as the US.

He described Britain’s tight restrictions as “frustrating” and said there were ways to open up travel safely.

“We're not advocating the complete opening up of travel in an uncontrolled way,” Mr Doyle told delegates attending a CogX webinar on the future of travel.

“But we do think there are countries out there which have very low risk, low infection levels and high rates of vaccination, and we should be opening up aviation between those countries.

“We should be acknowledging that vaccinated travellers have an inherently lower risk when they travel than those who don't. It's crazy not to try and reap that dividend.”

One route Mr Doyle is particularly keen on opening up as soon as possible is the UK-US corridor, with last weekend's in-person G7 summit in Cornwall highlighting the value of face-to-face meetings.

While business travel has been slower to recover in parts of the world where the aviation sector is returning to normal service, such as the US, Mr Doyle said people would want to follow the example of the G7 leaders and “go out and build relationships”.

“The G7 is critical in building a recovery pathway, which is co-ordinated for sectors like aviation," he said.

We're encouraging the UK and the US to build a framework to open up the travel corridor because others will follow.

“So we're encouraging the UK and the US to build a framework to open up the travel corridor because others will follow. We should be seizing that opportunity because both countries have made amazing progress on vaccinations."

Mr Doyle said Europe and the US were moving at a quicker pace to open up their travel sectors despite the UK's successful global vaccination drive.

“The UK looks like it's beginning to get left behind compared to other countries and I think that will have economic consequences, as well as consequences for the aviation industry and the jobs that depend on it,” he said.

The global aviation sector was hammered last year when airlines were grounded by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The International Air Transport Association expects the outlook for global airlines to brighten in the second half of the year, with 2021 air passenger numbers 52 per cent lower than in 2019, before bouncing back in 2022.

However, international travel remains depressed, lagging behind domestic markets' recovery by a year or two, said IATA's chief economist Brian Pearce, because of governments' risk-averse approach to reopening borders.

While domestic travel in countries such as the US and China is recovering to pre-pandemic levels, Mr Doyle said Europe was “more proactive in opening up travel” with their airports and aviation networks bouncing back quickly.

“The demand is there,” he said. “It's about having a framework that can allow people to travel safely."

epa09249354 British tourists and residents line up to return to England at Faro airport, Algarve, Portugal, 05 June 2021. British Housing Minister Robert Jenrick on 04 June defended the 'ultra-cautious approach' to demote Portugal from the travel 'green list' to the 'yellow list' while assessing the risk of a mutation of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Portugal, including the Madeira and Azores archipelagos, will leave the British Government's 'green list' for international travel, announced the British Ministry of Transport.  EPA/LUIS FORRA
British tourists line up to return to England at Faro airport in Portugal after the UK government demoted the country from the green list to amber. EPA

The airline chief, who first joined BA as a junior analyst in 1998, criticised the government's lack of transparency over its green list, describing the decision to move Portugal from the green to the amber list this month as "very frustrating".

“We didn't get visibility of the data that moves the country in and out of amber or green,” he said.

That causes problems for the industry as a whole, he said, because airlines cannot start aviation networks up overnight and ultimately customers suffer. The Portugal decision was "unfair" for customers who had chosen to travel there, he said.

“It doesn't give customers or airlines the right framework to plan against and I think we can do better and also be safe,” he said.

“If we look at the green list today, we have a handful of countries on there. If we look at the criteria that we were led to believe would lead to countries being on the green list, there should be at least 12 countries on there, including the US.”

British Airways owner IAG reported a €1.14 billion ($1.38bn) loss in the first quarter of the year last month, with the company urging authorities to support airlines as they begin their economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: A plane takes off in view of a British Airways aeroplane at Heathrow Airport on February 13, 2021 in London, England. From 15 February travellers to the UK from a country on the UK's travel ban "red list" will be required to quarantine in a government-approved facility for ten days at their own cost. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Mr Doyle said BA wants to build its networks back up quickly to help the UK retain its leadership position in the aviation sector. Getty Images

Mr Doyle said British Airways wanted to rebuild networks rapidly to help Britain maintain its position as the world’s third-biggest aviation sector.

“The government needs to appreciate that the longer we are left with the policies that are stagnating us, the more jeopardy comes into UK aviation sector,” he said.

“Consumers in the UK have more direct services to locations around the world than any other European city and we can't take that for granted.”

He said the path to recovery for the aviation industry and the UK lay with the travel industry because Britain is an island economy and "we want to be open for business, we want to be global Britain".

"That means actually having strong aviation networks and being able to transport goods and people all over the world," he said.

“We are the cog that oils the global economy and we will be a very important part of that in the future."