Comment: Importance of government dialogue highlighted by Travel Matters

Transport secretary Justine Greening is among the more impressive members of the coalition government thus far, so her appearance at the Abta Travel Matters conference at Millbank this morning should be of interest.

It is important, in any case, that the Secretary of State for Transport could be prevailed upon to address a travel industry policy conference when so often it appears from government policy that ministers have listened very little to the sector’s concerns.

If Greening stays for the morning she will hear a presentation of economic research commissioned by Abta which quantifies the outbound industry’s contribution to UK GDP and employment.

Hopefully, tourism minister John Penrose, also due to speak at the conference, will take a copy of the report away with him to read in conjunction with the latest monthly travel and tourism release from the Office for National Statistics, also due out this morning.

This will give the latest figures for inbound and outbound travel and the estimated value of each.

It will then subtract one from the other to produce a figure showing a deficit in the UK travel and tourism economy, given the estimated value of UK travellers’ spending abroad is greater than that of inbound visitors to the UK.

The Abta research will suggest the ONS figures are incomplete.

It would be interesting to know what Greening thinks of another piece of research, into attitudes to Heathrow among UK consumers. The survey, referred to in the linked story, was carried out for Travel Weekly by Explore Research at the weekend.

It was a relatively small survey of 500 adults, but carried out among a representative sample of people on Explore’s panelbase of 180,000 UK adults. So we can consider it a reasonable snapshot of opinion.

It found 46% of those surveyed would avoid Heathrow at the moment (and two-thirds avoid Heathrow during the Olympics). A similar proportion, 45%, would not book a flight or holiday from Heathrow at present, and one-third “dread” flying to or from Heathrow.

God knows what the result would have been among non-European Union passport holders.

Respondents blamed the government, border control staff and BAA for the delays, in that order. Perhaps surprisingly, more thought BAA should pay for the staff and technology to put things right (43%) than said the government should (36%).

Possibly, they realised ‘the government’ would mean taxpayers. One in five (21%) thought the airlines should pay, which will please Willie Walsh no end.

However, they did not blame the airlines, which may not fit with the hopes of some in the Home Office. Just 4% of Explore’s sample fingered the carriers, when barely a week ago the Financial Times quoted an unnamed government official suggesting: “People standing in the [passport] lines [at Heathrow] often think it’s the airlines’ fault, not the government’s.”

A fellow official said: “The real answer is to get the airlines to pay for more security – that is the long-term answer.” Of course, whoever pays the bill, the burden will ultimately fall on air passengers.

Border control is a black hole for the airlines. In a way, it is a metaphor for government policy on aviation at present. There is an awful weight of matter sucking up energy, but nothing we can see.

It would be astonishing if Greening gave much indication of the government’s thinking on this today, or on much else as her department prepares a document on the future of aviation for release this summer.

When she spoke at a recent Parliamentary reception hosted by easyJet, the transport secretary was full of praise for the sector, saying “this industry is really playing its part in getting the economy back on its feet.

But she offered nothing concrete. “I know there has never been a more important time in aviation. We are determined to work across government to help make a success of your industry,” was how Greening responded to a direct plea to consider a review of the costs and benefits of APD.

No matter: this morning forms part of a dialogue with the government and the industry must hope it continues.

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