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Stansted Airport boss urges Government to scrap test plans for travellers

Stansted Airport's operator has revealed passenger numbers slumped by 88.6% during the first 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The hub's traveller total was 28,396,165 to March 2020 – which tumbled to 3,069,220 in the year to March 2021.

Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which saw traffic across its three bases tumble by 89.4%, says plotting a path to restriction-free travel is vital to full revival of the UK's ailing aviation sector.

Charlie Cornish (46424178)
Charlie Cornish (46424178)

A key demand is eliminating the need for travellers to take expensive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests on their return from trips abroad.

Currently, the UK Government proposes that all passengers – even those returning from the lowest-risk 'green' destinations – will have to be screened so it can gather data that will help with genomic sequencing.

MAG said this could be avoided if governments across the world worked together on sharing data on coronavirus variants.

Testing is available at Stansted Airport (46424272)
Testing is available at Stansted Airport (46424272)

The testing requirement is part of the Global Travel Taskforce's 'traffic light' framework, announced last week, which categorises countries as red, amber or green based on the risk associated with visiting them. Subject to final confirmation, it is set to come into play on Monday May 17 – the earliest date non-essential travel can resume.

MAG – which also owns Manchester and East Midlands airports – said that the framework should be improved urgently to include a fourth, restriction-free category capitalising on the success of the UK's vaccination programme.

Chief executive Charlie Cornish said: "After more than a year of almost total shutdown – and with so many jobs and so much economic value at stake – it's really important we get people moving again once it is safe to do so.

"We now need Government to confirm the May 17 start date as soon as possible, along with the list of countries that fall into each 'traffic light' category."

Stansted Airport terminal (46424280)
Stansted Airport terminal (46424280)

Under the traffic light system, those returning from green list countries will have to take a test pre-departure and another PCR test within two days of getting back. Those returning from amber list countries are also required to self-isolate for 10 days and take an extra PCR test, while those coming back from red list countries have to book a Government-approved hotel quarantine package.

Mr Cornish said: "But the price tag attached to testing will hold back the recovery and hinder the sector's ability to power the UK's economic revival as a whole.

"The requirement to complete a PCR test on return from even the safest countries adds potentially unnecessary cost, and the Government's attention must now turn to finding smarter and more affordable ways to manage the risk posed by new variants of concern.

Stansted Airport (46424256)
Stansted Airport (46424256)

"This should be achieved by forging ever-closer partnerships with key markets and developing transparent ways of sharing data into these variants so they can be effectively contained.

"Where we can trust data from other countries, forcing people to spend money on expensive PCR tests, to obtain the very same information, would represent a colossal waste of everyone's money.

"Covid-19 is a global problem and requires a co-ordinated international response, not just in bringing the pandemic under control but in developing solutions to enable a return to restriction-free travel between countries where there is a lower level of risk.

Stansted Airport. Preparations for the 'New Normal' during and after the pandemic. .Social distancing at Passport control. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (46424286)
Stansted Airport. Preparations for the 'New Normal' during and after the pandemic. .Social distancing at Passport control. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (46424286)

"The Government should also be looking to the UK's world-leading vaccination programme as a means to remove further barriers to travel to as many destinations as possible.

"Only by setting ourselves on a course back to restriction-free travel now will the aviation industry find itself on a road to full recovery, unlocking the wider-ranging economic benefits that brings."

The dramatic downturn aviation has experienced was laid bare in MAG's annual passenger figures, which showed that compared to March 2020, MAG served 93% fewer passengers in March 2021 and that its rolling 12-month passenger total is down 89%.

In March 2019, MAG served more than four million passengers, compared to 140,000 in March 2021 – a 97% decrease.

Manchester Airport handled 95,798 passengers in March 2021, 89.8% down on the 942,900 it handled in March 2020. At Stansted, the figure was 44,259 this March, compared with over 800,000 a year earlier – a 95% drop. East Midlands Airport served just 71 passengers for the whole of March this year, against 106,529 in 2020.

Cargo at Stansted Airport has increased by 53.3% year on year to 26,176 tonnes in March 2021.

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