Failing to gain altitude: How Scotland's aviation sector fears further turbulence after being grounded by Covid pandemic
Airports are again alive with the sound of travellers – whose itineraries now include jumping through Covid-related logistical hoops to enjoy, say, long-overdue catch-ups with relatives living overseas, or a much-needed break in sunnier climes.
But aviation remains in many ways on the tarmac after a turbulent period brought about by the outbreak of Covid-19 – and doubts over when it will be cleared for take-off to reach previous heights.
Just a few months into the pandemic, in July 2020, Unite launched its Save Scotland’s Airports campaign – and three months later the skies didn’t seem much clearer, with the union viewing the sector as “teetering on the brink”.
UK airports as a whole lost out on revenue of £2.6 billion between April and September last year alone, and stand to lose at least the same again this year, according to the Airport Operators Association (AOA).
The latter’s boss Karen Dee says regarding the situation north of the Border: “Our airports have been one of the most affected sectors, with passenger numbers falling to historically low levels.
"At the start of the year, the Scottish Government took a more restrictive approach than the rest of the UK, with hotel quarantine for all international arrivals ... this hit Scottish airports harder than those in other parts of the UK.
"When reopening was finally possible towards the end of the Scottish school holidays, it was combined with an onerous, burdensome and expensive testing regime that has left summer holidays beyond many families.
“As a result, as summer draws to a close, we have seen a second lost summer, which has been devastating for the sector, but has also put the brakes on our recovery. Our sector has been left behind as the rest of the economy reopens.”
Also sending out a mayday call is Edinburgh Airport, with a spokesman stressing the onerous impact of the pandemic on aviation.
“We were the first to feel its effects as travel across the globe ground to a halt – and its impact will be with us far longer than most,” the spokesman said.
The transport hub welcomed 14.7 million fliers in 2019, to in 2020 handling a little under 3.5 million – a reduction estimated to have cost the Scottish economy £1 billion, and more than 21,000 jobs last year.
The spokesman adds: “We’ve had little or no income since March 2020 and, even now, we’re operating at only 25 per cent of our capacity and at a loss.
"Keeping the airport open for reparations, essential travel, freight, mail and medical emergencies meant us operating at a loss of £3.5 million per month. This is mirrored across the airport campus where the current toll of redundancies numbers 2,000.”
The corrosive effect of sector woes has even seen staff at Glasgow Airport in June using vehicles to spell out a giant “help” sign on the tarmac in protest at continued restrictions.
Derek Provan, chief executive of the airport’s parent company AGS Airports, which also owns Aberdeen Airport, says: “Almost a third of the people who worked across our airport communities have lost their jobs – and the lack of a significant recovery plan or industry-specific support is taking a heavy toll on those who are left.
“The UK’s aviation sector is currently trailing other competing EU markets in terms of recovery while Scotland continues to lag way behind its counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland."
Indeed, a report published in March 2020 by Unite estimated that nearly 62,000 UK aviation and aerospace jobs had been cut in the previous 12 months, double the numbers lost in France and Germany.
Mr Provan adds: “More than 75 per cent of the UK adult population has been fully vaccinated and low levels of recorded positive cases are being picked up by PCR arrivals testing, yet the aviation industry in Scotland is facing even greater losses than 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
“It is difficult to comprehend why an industry that delivers so much for our economy in terms of the jobs it supports, the inward investment it sustains, and the connectivity it delivers for our businesses, goods and the millions of visitors we welcome each year is not only being let down by government, but left behind.”
Ms Dee describes the impact on those working in the sector as “profound and very real”, adding: “Unfortunately, we have already seen redundancies – and with the ONS showing that over half of those working in aviation remain on furlough, these risks continue.”
She suggests the UK and Scottish governments providing ongoing financial and employment support, adding: “Aviation will be central to Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, and it is time that the Scottish Government fully backed airports by being more ambitious about reopening, reducing the testing burden, and providing further financial support in the challenging winter months ahead."
Mr Provan says the Scottish Government’s “procrastination must stop now before we fall even further behind our UK and EU counterparts”, also calling for a long-term aviation recovery strategy.
He says while bookings are picking up again in most EU countries, “ours are declining because Scottish passengers are being unfairly penalised due to a restrictive and costly testing system and the continued delay in introducing a vaccination certificate app”.
Edinburgh Airport reports talks with governments both north and south of the Border being challenging. Indeed, the airport and AGS Airports were among those recently involved in a dispute with the Scottish Government about the price of Covid-19 tests for travellers.
However, Edinburgh flags passenger numbers gaining altitude, albeit slowly. “We’re confident we’ll return to the passenger levels of 2019, but that will not be for a number of years,” a spokesman said.
Lastly, Ms Dee highlights how air travel is a passion for its workers, adding: “All they ask is that they are able to go back to doing what they enjoy – and connect Scotland to the rest of world.”