Is the Traffic Light System Really Giving Air Travel the Green Light?

Photo by James Cridland. Licensed under CC BY 2.0. Traffic light modified.

And so it begins… We’re finally seeing an initial return to international travel from England with the UK Government’s new traffic light system outlined by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this week – and set to commence on the 17th of May. But how far does this initial step go to kick start air travel again?

The short answer is – not very! When analysing the ‘Green’ countries, we see a list of mostly minor markets with very limited tourism appeal. Overall, these nations accounted for just 5.7% of the UK’s 255 million total passengers carried before the pandemic in 2019. Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore are three ‘Green’ nations who themselves are giving England the red light, and Israel are only welcoming those who’ve received both vaccine jabs. The result is a negligible return to air travel, and what feels like a mixed puzzle of countries with misaligned policies not quite able to be pieced together.

Portugal is by far the most appealing market on the green list, and airlines across the UK have scrambled to heavily increase capacity on these routes to match heightened demand – with Ryanair launching 50,000 extra seats to Portuguese destinations, and many other carriers following suit. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding a partial return to international travel, many have slammed the new system. Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet, urged the Government to rethink their stance on green nations and allow travellers complete freedom to visit these low-risk destinations without the need for testing.

Stakeholders across the industry have criticized the Government’s highly conservative and cautious lists. The most popular UK holiday destinations, including Spain, France, Italy, and Greece all sit in the amber list – with travel not advised and self-isolation required upon return. The US, our largest trading partner, also sits alongside them. While transatlantic links are restricted, Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, estimates £23 million in economic value is lost every day. The general consensus is that this reserved approach is not reaping the benefits of the UK’s highly successful vaccination programme, and that our air travel markets risk falling behind the fuller approach seen in the US and Europe.

The list will be reviewed regularly with updates expected every three weeks. It is clear that for air travel to return to a more impactful extent, we’ll need to see a great deal more nations turning green within the next few weeks. On top of this, several other factors continue to plague the air travel process and could result in a messy scale-up in capacity. With Covid testing still costly for holidaymakers, and unacceptably long queues at the UK border. There certainly is a lot to be done in terms of government policy, regulation, and border resources before we will see the traffic light system truly thrive.

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I'm an avid writer and airport fanatic. I'm currently studying Airline and Airport Management at Bucks New University and hope to work in airport operations in the future.

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