Flight ‘traffic lights’ are stuck on red – but for how long?

Simon Calder
·3-min read
Red alert: Jet2 would quite like to know where it can take holidaymakers this year (Matt Carter)
Red alert: Jet2 would quite like to know where it can take holidaymakers this year (Matt Carter)

At teatime on Easter Monday, I settled back and waited expectantly to discover the near future of aviation. Ministers had carefully leaked plans to formalise the system of categorising countries according to the perceived risk they present.

This, we learnt from friendly newspapers, would allow international travel to resume at scale on 17 May. Arrivals in the UK from “green” countries, regarded as low risk, avoid quarantine. Passengers from “amber” nations would be subject to self-isolation unless they could demonstrate they had been vaccinated. And the “red” list remains much as it is now, with mandatory hotel quarantine for 11 nights at a price way above the likely air fare.

But at the 5pm Downing Street news conference, the grand reveal never happened – tipping the airports and airlines into absolute fury.

They had already regarded six weeks as implausibly short notice for resuming operations at scale. But the prime minister cheerfully informed them that 17 May might not be freedom-of-the-skies day, and that they might find out more this week. Or next month.

The airlines affected – whether red (Jet2), amber (easyJet) or green (Aer Lingus) – were collectively furious. They now have even less idea about how to plan for a restart than they did before the (non-) announcement. So what was that about?

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One of the wisest heads in aviation has helpfully interpreted the government’s commitment-phobic update.

Robert Boyle, former commercial director at British Airways and strategy director at BA’s parent company, IAG, says: “I think it is quite likely that the 17 May date for the resumption of overseas travel will be delayed.

“If it isn’t, then the list of ‘green’ countries will be very small and will mainly consist of places that don’t allow UK travellers in and places you’ve never heard of.”

That’ll be Australia, New Zealand and Pitcairn (whose entire population would not even half-fill a red, amber or green plane) then.

It should be simple to come up with a list of unthreatening – if impractical – locations to adorn the green list, you might imagine.

Mr Boyle says: “Are they really saying that they are still uncertain whether any country in the world will have low enough case numbers and to have made sufficient progress on its vaccination progress to allow travel to resume anywhere in the world?”

With the government’s current attitude, international travel could be “highly constrained until much later in 2021”.

The former BA man is scathing about the government’s stated wishes “to see a return to non-essential international travel as soon as possible” and that “people will be able to travel to and from the UK to take a summer holiday this year”.

He translates those assertions as: “We have no idea when travel will resume. Or, if we do, we don’t want to say in case we have to backtrack and people blame us for their holiday plans being ruined.”

Mr Boyle sees some grounds for optimism: “I do think there is a decent chance that we’ll get good news soon on the reopening of travel to the US.

“The objective data could support such a move, particularly the vaccination progress. It would be a good political move in post-Brexit Britain too.

“With the possible exception of Spain, it is the most important single country for the UK aviation industry. I’d like to think that might be factor in government decision-making too.

“At some point politicians must start to pay attention to all those aviation jobs, surely?”

We shall see.