Airports have always been reliable barometers of how the wider economy is performing. They are the engines of economic growth; providing the connectivity that drives tourism, generates employment and supports businesses to export and attract inward investment.
Our airports are resilient and have overcome many crises, from volcanic ash clouds and financial crashes to terrorist attacks; but the crisis we’re all facing today is very different.
With the economy effectively in hibernation these engines of growth have, albeit temporarily, come to a halt. Airports throughout the UK are operating at just a fraction of their capacity with our terminals empty of passengers and our airfields full of grounded aircraft.
Recently released figures from our trade body, ACI Europe, showed airports across Europe lost a total of 106 million passengers in March compared to the same period in 2019. To put that into perspective, during the financial crash in 2009 it took 12 months for European airports to lose more than 100 million passengers. With Coronavirus, it took just 31 days.
What these figures illustrate is that the aviation industry was one of the first sectors to feel the full impact of this pandemic. It will also be one of the last to fully recover as the reopening of borders will come at the end of any phased re-emergence from lockdown.
Both the UK and Scottish governments have taken steps to support the sector and the wider economy. The UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme has allowed us to furlough staff and the Scottish Government moved quickly with the alleviation of business rates and other public sector costs. If aviation is to quickly recover then more support is necessary, namely a further extension of the Job Retention Scheme and rates relief for airports across the UK.
At AGS, we have kept our airports open to support crucial lifeline services to our communities in the Highlands and Islands, for ambulance flights, the distribution of much needed medical supplies and to serve the oil and gas sector in the north east. In Southampton we have kept the airport open on a restricted basis to support life line services to and from the Channel Islands. We are more than a commercial business. Our airports are key components of our country’s infrastructure and we are committed to keeping the country moving wherever we can.
Throughout this, our focus has been on ensuring we have a sustainable business when this is over, and that we protect the jobs and livelihoods of the thousands of fantastic people who work at our airports.
We are also acutely aware of our social responsibility at this time, which is why facilities at both Aberdeen and Glasgow airports are being used as testing centres for the frontline NHS staff and other key workers who are putting themselves at risk every day on our behalf. In Glasgow, we supported some of the most vulnerable people in our society by covering the cost of hotel accommodation for the city’s homeless community.
It is clear events of the past seven weeks have had a profound impact on our sector but now is the time to plan for recovery and the undoubted role our airports will play in getting the economy back on its feet.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty, with the timing of any recovery dependent on the coordinated relaxation of imposed border restrictions.
There will also need to be a coordinated response when it comes to the measures we will have to put in place within our terminals and we are working with government to understand how health guidelines will potentially change the customer journey. Whatever steps are introduced, they will be done so to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone who works and travels through our airports.
I have no doubt we will be successful in our plans, that aircraft will soon fly again and that passenger demand, be it for business or leisure, will return. It will be a slow recovery and the future customer experience may be different. What won’t change is the role of aviation in driving the economy. Now more than ever, it’s crucial we provide the connectivity which will drive growth, employment and prosperity. Once this crisis has abated AGS Airports will be ready to play its part.
Derek Provan is chief executive of AGS Airports, which owns and operates Aberdeen International, Glasgow and Southampton airports.