Plane talk: Back to the future with the Government’s aviation strategy

Here’s what was on the shopping list for Chris Grayling, a key Leave campaigner, a week before the EU referendum: “Taking real steps to limit immigration, to abolish VAT on fuel and tampons, and to end the situation where an international court can tell us who we can and cannot deport.”

More than a year later, Mr Grayling is Transport Secretary and his agenda is accordingly different: “A thriving aviation sector will be central to our future prosperity as we leave the European Union,” he writes in the introduction to “a call for evidence on a new aviation strategy”.

Beyond the Horizon: the Future of UK Aviation celebrates a world beyond the EU: “In 2016 British airports added new routes to Chile, Costa Rica, Iceland, Iran, Peru, Sri Lanka and the United States,” it says, conveniently not mentioning that there were direct flights to all those nations from the UK decades ago.

“This is your opportunity to shape the future of aviation,” says the document. And it goes on to make some suggestions about how the coming decades may look.

We are told that in-town check-in is the future, and that Hong Kong provides “a great example of how the consumer journey can be streamlined”.

Two stations on Hong Kong’s Airport Express route allow passengers to check in before their flight: “They are issued with a boarding pass and can then either travel bag free straight to the airport or spend an unencumbered day in the city. On arrival at the airport, travellers proceed straight through to security and are reunited with their bags when they reach their destination.”

Surely the idea would work at Heathrow and Gatwick, with their direct rail links from the capital? Well, both of Britain’s leading airports offered the facility for years, but the airlines involved gave it up as an unprofitable sideline.

British European Airways had an entire in-town terminal on the Cromwell Road in west London, where passengers could check in before travelling on special buses direct to the aircraft steps. The introduction of security searches put paid to that luxury.

Later, British Airways offered Gatwick check-in at Victoria station in London. But within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, when every loss-making activity was under scrutiny, it was abandoned.

The Heathrow Express gave up carrying luggage separate from passengers after only a couple of years. And with low-cost airlines incentivising passengers to travel with hand luggage only, the prospects for success look even more dim today than they did two decades ago.

Next, the document pronounces, to the general surprise of the travelling world: “People can experience queuing and inconvenience at security and border control points, “As airport passport control is most people’s first experience of the UK, the Government wants to consider how it can work with industry to make the arrivals process as smooth as possible.”

This is the same Government, of course, which intends to put up the barriers to the 27 countries in the European Union, as part of “taking back control”.

And talking of the EU, the freedom we enjoy to fly to anywhere in Europe and to the US and Canada is bestowed by a pan-European treaty. “Alternative arrangements will be required for air services to or from these countries when the UK leaves the EU,” the document correctly observes. “New arrangements are a top priority for the Government.”

Back to Mr Grayling’s view as he campaigned to leave the EU: “A vote to Leave on 23 June is a vote for action, and the Government will need to respond quickly.”

I will leave it to you to decide whether the Government in which the Transport Secretary has played an important role has responded quickly, and whether a call for the return of in-town check-in could possibly be just a distraction from the alarming inertia in aviation policy.

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