Airlines need a rapid move to pre-departure Covid testing or government financial support in line with that afforded hospitality after a “catastrophic” nine months.

That is according to Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade, who represents easyJet, Ryanair, British Airways, Tui Airways, Jet2 and Virgin Atlantic.

Alderslade warned the latest restrictions mean air travel will remain “at a minimum” for at least the first three months of the year when airlines have already taken on “eye-watering amounts” of debt.

Writing for today’s Travel Weekly Business:am, Alderslade suggested: “Ministers should not be under any illusions as to what the sector requires.”

He warned that without a credible mass-testing regime for aviation “the future of our industry will be very uncertain”, adding: “Airlines may have no alternative but to tap the Chancellor for assistance.

“There remains a limit to the amount of debt carriers can take on. It is not unreasonable to expect the same support handed out to pubs and the hospitality industry.”

Alderslade called for “a combination of pre-departure testing and the roll-out of rapid, daily tests that can eliminate the need for quarantine upon arrival”.

He insisted “time is of the essence”, suggesting rapid testing “can be introduced within weeks”. Without it, he warned of “the strong likelihood of failures”.

Alderslade criticised the government for its “apparent lack of vision” for aviation and argued the sector has suffered during the pandemic from the ‘laissez faire’ approach which served it well in normal times.

This led the government to “remain on the side lines” while “other countries took steps to support their aviation sectors”, he said.

The French government advanced €7 billion in aid to Air France last year and the Netherlands €4 billion to KLM, while the German government provided €9 billion in aid to Lufthansa and three packages of support to Tui.

As a consequence, Alderslade said: “We fear a relative strengthening of competitor nations at the expense of the UK.

“Large overseas carriers which have received billions in state support will be in a much better position to increase market share and compete with UK carriers, including on routes to and from Europe and to the US and Middle East.

“The government runs the risk of helping to export our connectivity to heavily subsidised overseas airlines.”

He also called on the government to take advantage of Brexit by scrapping the “double taxation” of Air Passenger Duty on both legs of domestic flights and urged “a more reasonable approach” to air passenger rights.