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PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION

BLACK COUNTRY 2.0

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BRITAIN LEFT BEHIND IF BUSINESS TRAVEL DOES NOT RETURN SOON

As countries around the world ease their lockdown measures, and travel for many, including European business leaders, is almost back to pre-pandemic levels, Britain could be left behind as it attempts to trade around the world. 

 

That’s the message coming from bosses at the Black Country Chamber of Commerce after talks this week with industry experts including Nick Barton, CEO of Birmingham Airport. 
 

“Navigating this new world of travel and getting business trading internationally as safely and efficiently as possible is paramount for everyone,” said Calum Nisbet, Director at the Black Country Chamber, “However, thousands of businesses, including many of our members, who need to fly their teams across the world to negotiate deals, service machinery or simply sign multi million pound contracts, are missing out on deals worth billions to companies across the globe, whose borders are open safely to business travellers.”   

 

Currently, the US is flying over 2 million of its citizens on internal flights each day, with Europe close behind on passenger numbers, and, from 1st of July, the numbers are expected to increase as the continent lifts further restrictions across 27 countries.   

 

Calum continued, “Our members are concerned, very concerned that they are losing out on major contracts to businesses from other parts of the world because they are unable to travel.  

 

“One firm has reportedly lost orders in the US due to fears that they will not be able to satisfy contracts due to Covid and their inability to travel.  

 

“As one MD commented – ‘It’s a big ask for customers to buy expensive, multi million pound, pieces of capital plant without face-to-face meetings.  Zoom and Teams meetings help but aren’t as good – particularly for new customers with whom we have no relationship previously.” 

 

Earlier this month, ahead of the G7 Summit for world leaders, members of the European Union agreed to ease rules over the summer to allow fully vaccinated tourists to travel restriction-free across borders – but have excluded immunised British holidaymakers. Ambassadors from the 27 states approved a modified proposal that will allow EU residents to avoid tests and quarantines if they have been fully vaccinated for 14 days or more. Restrictions imposed on non-EU travellers will depend on the level of Covid-19 cases in each nation – currently the UK is excluded from all restriction-free plans due to concerns over the Delta variant. 

 

Its not all about the bucket and spade brigade...

The ability to travel for business hasn’t been considered for many months and the detrimental effect on regional firms, and the local economy, could be devastating.  

According to Birmingham Airport CEO, Nick Barton, “Air travel remains in crisis despite accelerating vaccine rollouts in developed countries.  

“We have struggled for months now, there has been no consistency in the rules and regulations and our intense lobbying seems to have gone unnoticed.

  

“All conversations have been focused on holidays and have not centred around business travel or those needing to visit friends and relatives. 

 

“Exporters have to be able to meet their customers and suppliers in person again. At some point they must be on site to develop products or build factories," he continued. 

"Video calls have replaced in-person meetings, but these are no substitute for those who need to meet face to face. 

“Business travel passengers account for 20% of our traffic at Birmingham Airport and the value of those business visits is crucial to the region. Government seems to have forgotten about those firms that have to travel around the world to do business. 

“There are 11,000 vehicles each day allowed into Britain through the tunnel and on ferries with drivers taking lateral flow tests for Covid, and borders open across Europe for them to travel. However, global Britain seems to be ‘shut’ with very little air travel allowed for any business. 

“We simply won’t be able to compete if we are not allowed to travel.” 

 

When Portugal was put on the green list recently just three flights left Birmingham Airport on one day with holidaymakers bound for the sun, meanwhile 49 flights left one German airport bound for several Spanish destinations and Munich Airport despatched 189 flights to European holiday destinations – a figure the UK didn’t reach in total across all of its airports.  

 

The pandemic has been a catastrophe for the travel industry and Birmingham Airport alike and is leading to UK businesses being unable to maintain trade relationships overseas or attract international visitors. The airport is only currently serving one country on the Green traffic light list (Gibraltar), with all others on the restrictive Amber list, and although airlines are serving a handful of Amber countries, volumes are small and customer confidence has hit an all-time low.  

 
Birmingham Airport is operating at passenger levels 95% less than in 2019 and without an urgent review of the methodology, which should include UK vaccinated travellers being able to travel without quarantine restrictions and expensive testing, another summer will be lost.  

 

The UK’s third largest airport outside London, and the UK’s seventh largest overall, pre-pandemic, Birmingham handled c13m passengers a year and c35m people live within its two-hour catchment – half the population of the UK.  

  

It is one of the West Midlands’ largest employers, creating jobs for 30,900 people across the West Midlands and adding £1.5bn in GVA to the regional economy.  

 

Mr Barton continued, “Whilst most of Europe and the US have now eased air travel restrictions, Britain’s businesses are losing out because they can’t fly to clients overseas to maintain equipment or close deals in person, nor can they afford to quarantine on return. The UK is becoming an outlier to the rest of Europe, undermining ‘Global Britain’s’ aspirations. 

 

“The Government’s Traffic Light System has failed to deliver a meaningful restart to international travel it promised and is ignoring the very risk-based system they designed.

 

“International travel can return safely in a risk managed way by properly implementing the Global Travel Taskforce’s plan for a traffic-light system. With more than half the population now having received their second vaccine, this must be factored into decision making rather than taking a broad-brush approach. 

 

“We also call on Government to rethink the current requirements for testing, which is totally unaffordable for most hardworking people, and to extend the furlough scheme beyond the September cut off for our sector, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic.”  

 

Dudley based business, Mechatherm is one firm experiencing difficulties due to restrictions on foreign travel. 

Chairman Andrew Riley told Prosper, “We have been told we have lost orders in the US solely due to their fears that we will not be able to satisfy our contracts due to Covid (and a lesser extent Brexit) and our inability to travel to site.

   

“The US companies we deal with are allowed to invite in a certain number of foreign Engineers to service and commission equipment but not solely for sales trips.  It is a big ask for customers to buy expensive, multi million pound, pieces of capital plant without face-to-face meetings. 

  

“Zoom/Teams meetings help but aren’t as good – particularly for new customers with whom we have no relationship previously.  

“We understand that some of our competitor countries are producing schemes to allow vaccinated exporters to travel with reduced quarantine.  It is our belief that without such a scheme the Government’s desire to increase exports will fail massively with consequent adverse effects on the UK GDP and employment.”

 

Meanwhile, Ben Towe, Group Managing Director from Hadley Industries in Oldbury, who has been quarantining at a hotel near Birmingham Airport following a business trip to the company’s site in Dubai, said, “We are an international business, and it is important that we are in touch with our leadership teams and hundreds of colleagues across the globe.  

 

“Virtual meetings help, but on occasion it is imperative that we meet in person. In this instance, travel was required to renew residency visa that requires a physical visit every 180 days.  

 

“I respect the Government’s position and knew that this visit would incur a quarantine period, but I do feel that travel restrictions need to be eased to help us continue to run our business effectively that were in place during the pandemic and before the introduction of Government quarantine hotels.” 

US Travel 

Meanwhile in a joint letter published to Virgin Atlantic’s corporate website earlier this month, multiple airline CEOs called for the UK and US to ease travel restrictions that were put in place for the coronavirus pandemic, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, United Airlines and British Airways.  

The new call to action came just a few days before the 47th annual G7 Summit, which was in Cornwall earlier this month. 

Ahead of the economic summit, the open letter suggested that reactivation of suspended airline routes between the US and UK could provide a boost to the world economy. 

For the UK in particular, the letter claims the European country is losing nearly $32.5 million per day due to current travel restrictions that are allegedly hindering its trade with the US. 

"Reopening travel between the US and UK is a critical next step in both the travel industry and the global economy’s recovery," American Airlines Chairman and CEO Doug Parker said in a statement. 

"With vaccine availability continuing to expand, we know that our business and leisure customers are increasingly eager to cross the Atlantic, and we know that when they do, it will provide a major boost to the economies in the US, UK and around the world."  

Additionally, the CEOs noted that coronavirus safety protocols that have been followed on commercial flights have helped to minimize the transmission of COVID-19. 

While the letter did not specify which safety, protocols have been put in place for the coronavirus, most airlines and airports have required protective face mask wear for passengers and crew in addition to enhanced cleaning. 

United’s CEO Scott Kirby cited data from trial flights between Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Heathrow Airport in London have shown there is a "near non-existent rates of viral transmission" on aircraft when safety procedures are in place. 

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CHAMBER SUPPORTS HOSPITALITY SECTOR 

At the recent Black Country APPG, a cross-party parliamentary group of politicians which meets every quarter to hear from the businesses were informed about issues relating to recruitment difficulties in the hospitality and visitor economy sectors. 

 

The challenges of being able to recruit staff is adding further frustrations to those businesses already deeply impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and delays to full re-opening.

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