Regional Connections Underpin National Strength
RCA Chief Executive Andrew Bell on the House of Commons’ call to improve aviation connections between the UK’s regions
Sometimes, it’s the little things that promise to have the greatest impact.
Last week, the House of Commons Transport Committee set out a new report - UK aviation: reform for take-off - setting out a series of steps for the Government to support the recovery and development of the sector following the coronavirus pandemic.
Concluding that the Government’s restrictions on air travel throughout the pandemic were disproportionate to the risks to public health, causing a severe financial shock to the sector, the report identifies a series of sensible policy demands aimed at both helping the aviation business recover and prevent any future event wreaking the same devastating effects.
However, amongst a raft of headline measures largely focused on the financial impact of the pandemic, the pressing need for a national aviation recovery strategy, and an urgent requirement to review the restrictions that devastated the sector during lockdown, the fact is that for regional airports, one of the group’s key recommendations stands out head and shoulders above the rest:
In one of the published report’s less attention grabbing headlines, chairman Huw Merriman MP urged the government to implement more flexible rules on Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes and Air Passenger Duty to improve connectivity between the four UK nations.
This is a subject - as anyone familiar with me is only too painfully aware - that I believe is vital to the creation of a sustainable and strategic regional transport infrastructure.
After years of campaigning, the UK Government’s 2021 recognition that Air Passenger Duty (APD) undermines the viability, sustainability, and potential of regional airports - and the subsequent decision to halve domestic APD rates from April 2023 - was welcome, but can not come quick enough.
The impact of APD on the economics and demand for domestic connectivity, which often requires connectivity between regional airports, is acute, with domestic journeys currently being subject to double taxation whereby the short haul rate of APD is charged twice on a return journey.
To take a step further than the report, I would urge the HM Treasury to introduce the reduced domestic APD rate with immediate effect, along with a commitment to no further increases to APD, and to utilise the revenues raised as an investment fund to support credible efforts aimed at solving the industry’s sustainability challenges.
Restoring and developing regional connectivity is also vital. An amendment of the PSO rules so that routes eligible for support can operate between regions rather than requiring a connection to London is critical, as is the urgent consideration of how - for routes where the PSO mechanism is not appropriate - we can target spending of domestic APD income to support the start-up of new or improved connections.
The Transport Committee’s findings represent a positive step in the right direction, but words are not enough. In order to drive the industry’s recovery forward, only continued, coherent and coordinated strategic support, coupled with immediate action, will allow the UK’s aviation sector to make truly positive strides …