9 MARCH 2020


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Article from BTNews 9 MARCH 2020

SOAPBOX SPECIAL: Karen Dee – chief executive, Airport Operators Association


Karen Dee joined the Airport Operators Association (AOA) as chief executive on 1 March 2017. She has more than 20 years’ experience in policy development, communications and representation activities within the transport sector, incorporating roles in government, consultancy and trade associations including the Department for Transport and the Confederation of British Industry.

Tonight, the aviation industry will gather at the AOA annual dinner – the biggest event in the aviation calendar – after an eventful few weeks. We are looking forward in particular to transport secretary Grant Shapps’ speech this evening, in which we hope he sets out a clear vision of how government will stand with the industry in these turbulent times.

First and foremost in our thoughts this evening will be the excellent Flybe pilots, crew and staff who have lost their jobs. All of us at the AOA hope that they find new roles in our industry soon so they can continue to give us the benefits of their talents. The impact of the airline’s collapse, given its network was systemically important for the UK, will be felt not just by the people working directly for Flybe but also by the airports Flybe served, the regions Flybe connected to the rest of the UK and the world and the many businesses, including tourism businesses, that relied on Flybe’s connectivity.

We have also been reminded these past few weeks of aviation’s global nature, affected by global issues such as the outbreak of COVID-19. This requires not only an operational response from our industry in support of public health authorities everywhere, but also impacts our businesses as people think twice about travelling, even if public health advice suggests they do not need to. This is already having an impact on passenger numbers.

Lastly, the recent ruling on the Airports National Policy Statement brings into sharp focus the need for a clear statement from the government that it believes aviation growth can be achieved in line with the UK’s net zero commitments. As an industry, we have stepped up to the plate and set out, in a world first, how we can achieve a net zero future. Indeed, Sustainable Aviation’s decarbonisation roadmap shows we will have lower absolute emissions than the Committee for Climate Change allowed for in its scenario planning, while accommodating the Department for Transport’s predicted 70% passenger growth.

All these challenges together remind us that, while we are private industry funded largely by private investments, there is a major role for government to play. When aviation suffers, so do the economy and the public. After all, aviation enables other industry to flourish – from bringing visitors to UK tourism destinations to helping companies export high-value products such as pharmaceuticals, electronical products and UK speciality food products. For every 10% growth in aviation connectivity, economies grow by 0.5%, according to ACI Europe.

That is why we were extremely disappointed the government’s announcements in January of a review of Air Passenger Duty and one of Regional Air Connectivity have seen little to no progress to date. Indeed, despite the Budget being two days away, the Treasury has yet to engage properly with airports on our views on APD.

Government now needs to act decisively to support UK aviation, in particular UK regional airports. In the short term, we have asked the government to consider a six-month suspension of APD to enable airlines to get through the COVID-19 outbreak and support their recovery over the summer when the virus’s impact is expected to decline.

Ultimately, however, the challenges I have outlined require a robust, long-term vision from government on the role aviation has to play in the UK: to enable our search for new opportunities outside the EU and to level up UK regions. A lack of government direction will lead to indecision and major delays to the vital upgrades of our airspace and ground infrastructure.

For example, capacity growth is possible only if government sets out the framework to deliver the changes necessary to do it in a sustainable way – be that airspace modernisation, sustainable aviation fuels or even new runways. Similarly, it requires an aviation tax system that encourages growth rather than hampers airlines’ ability to operate routes successfully.

The lack of clear direction is already having an impact, with planning applications by a number of airports rejected as local councils attempt to fill in the blanks themselves.

The long-awaited Aviation Strategy needs a renewed impetus to give the UK that vision it needs. To help us grow connectivity, deliver the many social benefits aviation brings and create sustainable aviation jobs across the UK regions.

We stand ready to deliver our side of that partnership with government. As I look ahead to the rest of 2020, I believe we can overcome the challenges of recent times and show the world UK airports are at the forefront of aviation’s future.

I look forward to hearing from the secretary of state how the government will work with industry and at pace to give us the tools we need to be successful.


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