Now is not the time to take away British Airways’ landing slots, says former minister

Linda J. Dodson

The Government’s threat to strip British Airways of landing slots has been called into question in the latest twist in a row between ministers and the country’s flag carrier.

Kelly Tolhurst, the aviation minister, raised the prospect of retaliation over BA’s controversial use of the taxpayer-backed furlough scheme at the same time that the company makes up to 12,000 staff redundant.

While admitting ministers currently have no jurisdiction to intervene in the distribution of airport slots – some of which are worth tens of millions of pounds – Ms Tolhurst said on Wednesday she would be “looking into” ways to re-allocate them.

However, the minister’s predecessor Paul Maynard MP questioned whether now was the correct time to be making such a threat.

“I was intrigued to hear of Government plans to reform slot allocation,” he told the Telegraph. “It is a deeply complicated process and maybe best left for when the aviation sector has stabilised.”

John Strickland, an independent aviation consultant said: “It is not normal for slots to be in the gift of politicians.”

He added: “What other airlines would look to take on those slots and employ lots of people in the current environment? It begs the question of which carrier would do it.”

Ms Tolhurst’s remarks are understood to have sparked a flurry of phone calls on Wednesday evening between the Department for Transport and regulator the Civil Aviation Authority.

The process is usually managed by independent body Airport Coordination Limited. 

A Whitehall source said: “[Ms Tolhurst] was clear that the government is legally prevented from intervening in the process. 

“As we leave the EU, we’ll be able to review the criteria on which they’re allocated. And she’s said that review will be about getting the best deal for the consumer, by driving competition and greater connectivity, not looking at the employment practices of airlines.”

The aviation sector has been angered by the Government’s response to coronavirus. After initially indicating the industry would be one of the first to receive bespoke support, Boris Johnson’s administration has refused to step in except as a last resort.

A 14-day quarantine for travellers entering the UK from Monday has been widely criticised by business leaders. Aviation bosses believe this will slow the sector’s recovery and hinder the broader economic adjustment to post-Covid conditions. 

 Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said “we owe it to the thousands who have died” to press ahead with the restrictions.

 BA is understood to feel particularly bruised in recent weeks, with MPs singling it out for criticism despite its rivals also announcing thousands of job cuts. 

In protest, BA bosses are understood to have boycotted a meeting on Thursday evening with Ms Patel to discuss quarantine implementation.

As Britain prepared to tighten travel restrictions, Germany’s flag carrier announced plans to “significantly expand” services over the coming months.

Lufthansa said it would begin ramping up operations so that 90pc of short and medium-haul services would be running by September and 70pc of long-haul flights. 

In stark contrast with the UK, Berlin officials have sprung to the rescue to bailout German carriers. Lufthansa secured a state aid package of €9bn earlier this week. Anglo-German travel agent Tui was handed a €1.8bn loan from German state-owned development bank KfW.

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