Simon Jupp is MP for East Devon and a member of the Transport Select Committee.
The Prime Minister’s desire to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights is exactly the boost our regional airports need. Operators will no doubt welcome the announcement last week of a consultation to examine the possibilities of creating a new lower rate or an exemption for returning flights.
On 5th March 2020, the largest regional airline in the UK and Europe, Flybe, collapsed into administration. The impact of coronavirus on flight bookings proved the last straw for its already precarious finances. The first major casualty for ‘UK plc’.
We are still picking up the pieces a year on. Some new operators have taken on the more profitable routes. Other routes, ill-served by road and rail, could remain cut-off long after travel restrictions relax in a few months’ time.
Environmental lobby groups often tell me this is no bad thing. What is the point in encouraging cheap ‘carbon-guzzling’ domestic air travel, when we could focus our efforts on improving road and rail connections and make sure customers pay cheaper rail fares and less at the pumps, they ask? Coronavirus has just accelerated an unavoidable process already in motion, so the thinking goes in some quarters.
But affordable and frequent domestic flights are vital to the UK in many ways.
Without them, we risk irreparable damage to trade, travel and business across the whole country, and connectivity between all four nations of the UK. Aviation remains a popular mode for British journeys over often long distances. In 2019, some 9.7 million passengers flew between England and Scotland, with Heathrow to Edinburgh being the most popular route.
Between English airports, it was 2.3 million. A flight from Leeds-Bradford to the beaches of Newquay takes one hour, compared six hours by road or eight hours by rail. M1 upgrades, HS2 or Northern Powerhouse rail when completed are unlikely to drastically bring those times down.
Regional airports don’t just help commercial passengers get from A to B quicker, they also assist with vital services which help save lives. With passenger numbers down around 90 per cent, these airports are still stepping up to the plate in playing a critical role in supporting our national effort to combat coronavirus, be it providing supplies for the NHS, army, and emergency services or ensuring mail continues to flow. To give an example, the Channel Islands continue to fly healthcare patients to Southampton for some urgent treatments.
Simply staying open can cost millions a week in fixed costs and regulatory fees. These are vital Public Service Obligation routes, in all but name, and need support to match.
Domestic air travel can become greener as we continue to decarbonise domestic aviation, including through mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels. Unlike international flights, domestic aviation emissions are included in national carbon budgets. Indeed, greenhouse gas emissions from domestic flights make up less than one per cent of total domestic transport emissions.
Without reform, British air taxes will perversely hit our tourist industry hard as it looks to bounce back this summer. As the Prime Minister wrote last week, someone flying from Belfast to London and back pays more tax than someone flying from Dublin to London and back. That is because our Air Passenger Duty rate – a tax on flying introduced in the 1990s purely as a revenue raiser – is the highest in Europe at £13 per leg for short-haul travel.
For a long time, industry calls to correct this have fallen on deaf ears. Hearing this call is all the more important now that domestic holidays look like a safe bet in 2021.
A review into domestic Air Passenger Duty as part of the wider Hendy Review on UK connectivity, with Boris Johnson signalling his support for a cut, is extremely welcome. There are two options: to cut it to £7 from the existing minimum of £13, or to remove the return leg fare. A tax holiday for new UK routes could also better use airport capacity and help form established services.
Reforming Air Passenger Duty remains the quickest tool in the Government’s arsenal to get the country truly moving again and reintegrate the four nations of the Union. Now firmly out of the scope of EU competition law, it is time to crack on.
When Flybe collapsed last year, a dozen or so MPs with regional airports in their backyard spoke passionately in Parliament about jobs and connectivity lost overnight. I highlighted the impact the collapse of Flybe, which was based at Exeter Airport, in my East Devon constituency. Yet, some 110 MPs represent catchment areas for these non-London airports. We can, and should, shout louder. Ultimately, we cannot level-up our communities if we level-off their vital transport links.