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Airline CEOs unite to urge reopening of transatlantic routes

The CEOs of every airline that flies transatlantic passenger services between the UK and the USA have joined forces with Heathrow Airport and other travel industry CEOs in urging both governments to re-open transatlantic air routes following more than a year of travel restrictions.

The airlines in question – American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic – view the operation of these routes as being essential to igniting economic recovery and say that as these two markets have been successful in their Covid-19 vaccination programmes, a data-driven and risk-based approach could enable them to safely re-open borders to air travel, boosting trade and tourism between the two countries.

The call for action came about during a panel event, hosted by Duncan Edwards, CEO of BritishAmerican Business, a transatlantic business networking group for C-suite executives and SMEs in the UK & USA. Participants on the panel included Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, Sean Doyle, CEO of British Airways, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, Scott Kirby, CEO of United, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow, and Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association.

The participants discussed the merits of having the USA on the UK’s travel ‘green list’, which means travellers from the US would no longer be required to self-isolate on arrival in the UK, as well as the benefits that would arise from the US lifting the UK-related travel ban (the so-called 212(f) order) to open the transatlantic corridor for UK residents to enter the USA. The USA is the UK’s largest trading partner and the panel stated that UK businesses are losing £23 million each day that transatlantic links remain closed. In 2019, 900,000 tonnes of cargo also travelled between the two countries.

In the USA, 63.5% of adults have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while about half of adults – 139 million people – have been fully vaccinated to date. In the UK, almost 68 million people have received a dose – more than 75% of the country’s adult population. Studies show that the vaccine programmes in both countries are successfully reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the severity of Covid-19 infections, plus fighting variants of the virus.

Statements from the panel:

Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic: “There is no reason for the USA to be absent from the UK ‘Green’ list. This overly cautious approach fails to reap the benefits of the successful vaccination programmes in both the UK and the US. While transatlantic links with the US are restricted, it’s costing the UK economy £23 million each day. We urge Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden to lead the way in opening the skies, making it a top priority at the G7 Summit. Customers, families, and businesses need to book and travel with confidence. After 15 months of restrictions, the time to act is now.”

Sean Doyle, chairman and CEO of British Airways: “As President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet this week, they must address the transatlantic ban that is separating our two low-risk countries at a major cost to our citizens and economies. We urgently need them to look to the science and base their judgements on proper risk analysis, allowing us all to benefit from the protection offered by our successful vaccine rollouts. In the UK this means making the traffic light system fit for purpose, including a pathway to restriction-free travel for vaccinated travellers, and getting rid of complexity surrounding ‘amber list’ countries, eliminating quarantine and reducing the number of tests passengers are required to take.”

John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow: “Connectivity between the UK and the US is one of the great engines of the global economy. The scientific data shows transatlantic travel and trade can be reopened safely and every day that policymakers delay puts jobs, livelihoods, and the economic chances of hardworking folks across our countries at risk unnecessarily. We cannot continue to keep locked up indefinitely. Politicians should seize on the successful vaccination programmes in our two countries to begin looking to a future where we manage Covid, rather than letting it manage us.”

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines: “As we see people reclaiming their lives and reconnecting with loved ones, it’s clear that the infection rates of our countries indicate an extraordinarily low risk to travel between the US the UK, provided travellers are vaccinated or can produce a negative PCR test prior to boarding a flight. Our modelling studies conducted with Mayo Clinic put the risk of transmission on a plane travelling between the UK and US at one person in a million.”

Doug Parker, chairman and CEO of American Airlines: “We’re proud of the measures American and others have taken to navigate the pandemic and ensure we deliver a safe, healthy and enjoyable experience for customers as they return to travel. Reopening travel between the US and UK is a critical next step in both the travel industry and the global economy’s recovery. With vaccine availability continuing to expand, we know that our business and leisure customers are increasingly eager to cross the Atlantic, and we know that when they do, it will provide a major boost to the economies in the US, UK and around the world. We look forward to continuing to work with both governments as they make this important decision.”

Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines: “Throughout the pandemic, experts have encouraged governments, businesses and the public to follow the science. United and other airlines have done just that and implemented the necessary safety protocols to confidently re-open key international routes like the air corridor between our two countries. Programmes like the trials of Covid-free flights between Newark and Heathrow and the US Department of Defence air filtration study conducted onboard United aircraft not only contributed to the body of scientific knowledge, they have demonstrated the near non-existent rates of viral transmission aboard an aircraft. And now, through a mobile app, travellers can upload verified test results and vaccine records before international travel. All this with the successful leadership of vaccination efforts by both governments, no interests are served by delaying the re-opening of these essential air routes any longer. We are ready.”

Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue: “The surge in travel in recent weeks has been remarkable as case counts fall and vaccination rates rise, and we’re confident that demand for travel between the US and the UK would follow a similar recovery pattern with an established travel corridor between the two countries. As international destinations have opened to travellers across our Latin America and Caribbean network and travelling has been made easier with fewer border restrictions, we have seen a notable uptick in the number of people flying to these destinations. Data has shown that people can travel safely when certain health and safety protocols remain in place, and we believe the UK should implement revised border restrictions similar to those that have already been successful in many other countries.”

A recent York Aviation report stated that a second ‘lost summer’ of international travel would result in £55.7bn in lost trade and £3.0bn in lost tourism GDP if reopening is delayed until September. If international travel remains restricted, it will cost the US economy $325 billion in total losses and 1.1 million jobs by the end of 2021, according to an analysis from the US Travel Association.

“The millions of travel-supported US jobs lost to the pandemic cannot be replaced without the return of international visitors, and the UK is our number one overseas travel market,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association. “Advancing a science-driven approach to restart international travel is crucial, and a US-UK corridor is a logical place to start because of the two countries’ excellent records on vaccinations and declining infections, as well as their strong relationship.”

The group has encouraged the US government to consider lifting entry requirements for UK travellers who have provided a negative Covid-19 test ahead of arriving in the USA or are fully vaccinated or can present proof of recovery.

On the UK side, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked to consider removing the need for travellers returning to the UK from ‘green list’ countries to complete an expensive and time-consuming PCR test on their arrival, instead of calling for lateral flow tests, as used in care homes and schools, with only positive tests requiring a PCR test.

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