Ryanair boss hits out at Government’s ‘lamentable’ support for airlines

Neil Lancefield, PA Transport Correspondent

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said Government support for airlines during the coronavirus pandemic has been “lamentable”.

He claimed there is “much more to be done” to help the industry during the Covid-19 crisis.

Giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee, Mr O’Leary said the furlough scheme is “welcome”, but “the Government has been lamentable in providing other support”.

He went on: “We had to refund over 1.5 billion euro (£1.3 billion) to customers in the last 12 months because our flights were cancelled by government order.

“There has been no support for that. We have received no support.”

He criticised Chancellor Rishi Sunak for failing to reduce Air Passenger Duty (APD), which he described as a “ridiculous” tax that “hits the poorest people hardest”.

He said: “No effort has been made by the Government to roll that back, reduce it temporarily, or in fact – what we would call for – abandon it altogether, at least until traffic at UK airports recovers to pre-pandemic levels.”

He added: “There’s much more to be done on Government support.

“The furlough scheme falls short of what needs to be done and it will be a very challenging and difficult return to normal operation or pre-Covid operation levels and profitability.”

After the hearing, a Department for Transport (DfT) spokeswoman said: “We recognise the challenging times facing the aviation sector as a result of Covid-19, which is why we will do everything we can to help this critical industry.

“Protecting jobs is an absolute priority – we are providing around £7 billion of sector specific support, which, as well as the extension of the furlough scheme and wider support through action on airport slots, loans and tax deferrals, will help businesses safeguard jobs.”

Mr O’Leary said Ryanair has been “essentially wiped out”, with just 27 million passengers expected in the 12 months to the end of March, compared with 150 million during the previous year.

The group expects to make an annual loss of more than 850 million euros (£735 million), he added.

He told the committee that the Civil Aviation Authority is taking “criminal proceedings” against Ryanair and other airlines because they carried passengers with pre-departure coronavirus test results written in Italian and German.

Government regulations state that test results must be in either English, French or Spanish.

“We, the airline, are facing criminal proceedings for bringing people into the UK, with Italian and German PCR tests validly done because they’re not in the Spanish, French or English language.

“It’s this kind of bonkers, non-joined-up regulation which is designed to make bureaucrats at the Department of Health look like they’ve done something.

“Whereas in reality it’s completely nonsensical,” he said.

He does not believe the Government’s new Global Travel Taskforce – set up to develop plans for the resumption of foreign travel – is “likely to achieve much”.

He added: “Vaccines are the way out of this, not bizarre, unimplementable regulations.”

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Karen Dee, chief executive of industry body the Airport Operators Association, told the same hearing that business rates relief for English airports will cover losses for less than a fortnight.

She said: “Our estimate is that the total amount that will be offered, just in this financial year to airports to support business rates, will cover losses for about 13 days. It’s a relatively small proportion.”

She added: “It’s a significant cost. But when you build in those other operational costs – air traffic control, maintaining safety and security, looking after the runways – they are big costs that, when you have no revenue and virtually no passengers, you simply cannot cover those costs, and that is not a sustainable position for any business.”

Aviation minister Robert Courts said he would “absolutely reject any suggestion” that the Global Travel Taskforce is a way of pushing foreign holidays “into the long grass”.

He told the committee: “This is very much about bringing the right people together in the right way, following the Prime Minister’s road map, and making a difference to ease restrictions on the sector as quickly as we can.

“Yes safely, but in a sustainable and robust way.”

Pressed on when overseas leisure trips can resume, Mr Courts replied: “We do need to work through the really quite complicated factors that we have to look at as we get this Global Travel Taskforce report together.

“So we’ve said that there won’t be any travel before May 17, and we will look as soon as we can after that, but it really isn’t something I can give more detail on at the moment.”

The DfT later clarified that the Government is working towards reopening international travel for people in England “no earlier than 17 May”.