The Fractured State of the UK’s Air Travel Traffic-Light System

As we move on to the fourth step of the UK Government’s ‘irreversible’ easing of lockdown restrictions, international travel and the traffic-light system have undergone a shake-up. From yesterday, Monday 19th July, millions of UK citizens will be able to travel internationally to a wide array of destinations without facing quarantine measures – but to what extent does this set the aviation industry back on track?

The biggest re-start of travel since March 2020

Monday’s changes mean that any fully vaccinated brits can return from amber list countries without the need to isolate. This move opens up much of Europe for the first time in more than 16 months and begins to shape the travel process for the summer season. Instead of requiring quarantine, travellers returning from amber list countries will be required to undergo a series of PCR tests instead.

Despite the easing of quarantine restrictions upon entry to the UK, international travel is certainly not in the clear just yet. The changes don’t guarantee hassle-free travel, and many European destinations are setting their own precedents and requirements – even the lifting of UK restrictions on Monday hasn’t exactly come without exceptions.

The UK deems France an ‘amber-ish’ threat

Despite being on the amber list, due to rising cases of the Beta variant in France any travellers crossing the channel will still be required to quarantine upon their return. This was a last-minute decision from the government, which led to unexpected complications for many tourists.

Overall, the UK’s U-turn on French travel has caused concern and uncertainty for many – with many noting it could simply be the first of many changes from the government, in what is effectively creating a sub-category of nation between amber and red. Amber-ish? Travellers simply cannot be guaranteed a quarantine-free booking, and any nations currently residing on the amber list all risk the same fate as France. Many were discouraged from booking following the decision, and the sudden rule change even caused airline shares to temporarily fall on Monday with easyJet stock falling by more than 6%.

‘The UK has no coherent policy on international travel’

For the UK aviation industry, the pandemic timeline has been one of dwindling peaks and extreme troughs. Government policy changes have led to encouraging surges in bookings followed by mass cancellations. Willie Walsh, the Director General of IATA, stated the UK has “no coherent policy on international travel”. I tend to agree with him.

Image: Lewis Clarke. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 2.0.

New variants and ongoing travel rules have crushed any hopes of a successful summer season, and air travel stocks have lost an estimated 20% of their value over the past three months. The UK also lags behind other European nations – on July 12th flights were down 65% on the same day in 2019, meanwhile Spain, Germany, France, and Italy were all down by between 30% and 45%.

Fractured but hopeful

Although the traffic light system has been messy and confusing at times, after the worst year and a half in aviation history the outlook must be hopeful, and we must look forwards. On Monday, Heathrow was buzzing with passenger numbers much higher than the West London hub has seen in a long time. Within a few hours of the UK government’s statement announcing the relaxing of quarantine measures, British Airways’ website saw a 96% increase in visitors compared to the week prior.

The CEO of Gatwick Airport, Stewart Wingate, stated that although the government must remove more barriers which are inhibiting international travel, this is a start and will capitalize on the UK’s successful vaccine rollout. The exclusion of France from a quarantine-free amber list as well as the government’s persistence for expensive PCR tests to be used at the border both put the industry at a disadvantage for building back better – but there is room for optimism, and the air travel landscape is increasingly bringing back demand slowly but surely.

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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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