Scottish Government ministers 'have not visited' Edinburgh Airport to discuss Covid recovery

No Scottish Government ministers have visited Edinburgh Airport to discuss the impact of the pandemic, its chief executive has said, as he published a report calling for action to assist the industry’s recovery.

Chief executive Gordon Dewar called for government action over issues such as a discrepancy between Covid testing for passengers between Scotland and England, as well as a “meaningful engagement” with the industry, as the airport unveiled a report submitted to the Scottish Government earlier this year.

Mr Dewar said that Skyscanner search data shows airports in the north of England have already seen a surge of interest in bookings since the testing regime was loosened by Westminster – with no similar increase in Scotland.

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Gordon Dewar said no ministers had visited the airport since the pandemic began.

In The Importance of Aviation to Scotland’s Economic Success, submitted to the government in July, but released publicly for the first time today, Mr Dewar warned the knock-on economic effects from a lack of recovery in the sector could be wide ranging.

He said the airport’s recovery could be delayed by three years if quick action was not taken.

Mr Dewar said the airport had hoped to return to 2019 levels by 2023, but said that without action, it could take until 2026 to return to pre-pandemic levels.

He said: “We’re hoping the government sees sense [about testing]. It doesn’t achieve anything, doing something different and you just get this cross border transfer. Even waiting six or seven days to make up your mind, costs, people are booking now. Days matter in terms of recovery.”

He said no Scottish Government ministers had visited the airport, which is still losing £2 million a month, down from £4m a month at the peak of the pandemic, to discuss the impact of Covid and added he was looking forward to working with Green MSPs in the new coalition government.

"I’m looking forward to actually having a conversation [with Green MSPs] because they’ve never been particularly wanting to sit with us,” he said.

He said there had been “little tangible output” from the Scottish Government’s aviation recovery group, which meets weekly.

“We’ve lost 2,000 jobs at the airport and we haven’t had a minister here to talk about it."

He added: “All of our conversations, trying to get them to engage in a few weeks ahead, has been really difficult.

"The competition for the recovery in the next few years is going to be enormous. There’s been no discussion as to how we make the Scottish and the UK market attractive for next year, which is deeply worrying. In a competitive recovery you really cannot afford to fall too far behind.”

When asked if he found the lack of engagement surprising, Mr Dewar said: "Yes”.

Mr Dewar warned although staycations have been popular this year, the amount of money spent by local travellers was far lower than the average spend per head of international travellers, affecting the Scottish economy as a whole.

He said: "We’re potentially losing five or six years of growth and that converts directly into GVA and jobs and businesses going bust in the Highlands and Islands when the customers are not coming. Unfortunately, we are lagging behind our competitors due to tighter restrictions and slower relaxations and will only isolate ourselves further if we don’t have a coherent strategy in place.”

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: "This report highlights the importance of aviation to Scotland's recovery and how the sector links into the wider economy.

"This is more than just travel and tourism - it's also about business investment, international trade and exports, and the many thousands of jobs that are supported by Scotland's connectivity to the world.

"A four-nations approach will ensure Scotland remains competitive and well placed to recover sustainably, and we hope this report helps to inform the Scottish Government's decision."

The report also called for a reduction or removal of Air Passenger Duty for 2022 or tapering return while restrictions still apply.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government pointed to a statement made on Tuesday by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She is expected to make a decision about Covid tests for travellers this week after having initially said she planned to keep restrictions in place due to testing allowing for the monitoring of new variants into the country.

In England, PCR tests will no longer be required for fully vaccinated travellers returning to the country.

However, the Scottish Government said it would not drop the testing requirements at this stage "due to significant concerns at the impact on public health".

Ms Sturgeon has faced a growing backlash over her plans to keep a strict Covid test regime and has been told by the travel industry that it would “destroy hopes of a recovery in 2022”.

The First Minister said: “We also fully understand and agree with the desirability wherever possible of adopting a four-nations approach to travel restrictions. And we have to recognise the reality, however difficult this may be for us, that if Scotland adopts more stringent requirements than England, then people living in Scotland, who want to go abroad, may decide to fly from airports based in England.

"In those circumstances, we would potentially face the economic cost of stricter travel rules, without gaining enough public health benefit to justify that cost.

“So we must weigh up the public health risks of making this change – and I will be discussing this further with the chief medical officer – with the pragmatic considerations I have just frankly set out and the understandable concerns of the travel industry. It’s not an easy decision and will have implications either way.”

Transport minister Michael Matheson visited Edinburgh Airport for the launch of its sustainability strategy in June.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “There has been regular engagement with the aviation sector over the last 18 months with regular meetings between the Scottish Government and the industry in order to listen to and act on the sector’s concerns. The Minister for Transport visited Edinburgh Airport on 23 June and is also attending a meeting of the Aviation Working Group on 23 September.

“The recently published Programme for Government reaffirms our commitment to help airports restore and grow connectivity essential for business, tourism and economic growth.”

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