Belfast International Airport boss urges change to PCR test rules to encourage travel abroad
The boss of Belfast International Airport has called for an end to expensive PCR tests in an attempt to help the travel industry bounce back after the pandemic.
Graham Keddie, managing director of the airport, was speaking after UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid indicated that PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers are set to be replaced with cheaper lateral flow tests.
Mr Javid told MPs this week that changes to the rules for international travel will be announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps "as soon as he is ready", with an announcement expected before the formal review point on October 1.
This move would be welcomed by holidaymakers and industry leaders who have criticised the high cost of PCR coronavirus tests.
Fully vaccinated travellers returning from amber list locations, including popular destinations such as France, Italy, Greece and mainland Portugal, are currently required to buy post-arrival PCR tests, which typically cost anywhere from £65 up to hundreds of pounds, depending on how quickly they are needed.
Meanwhile, the traffic light system has been blamed for stopping people from booking holidays amid concerns that countries could change to high risk categories at short notice.
Mr Keddie told Belfast Live he would welcome such a move as consumer confidence around travel slowly returns to normal.
He said: "International travel has a very long way to go and there's no doubt that PCR tests and a slight nervousness around government changes to the traffic light system has hugely suppressed it.
"Until we get back to some level of normality in terms of international travel, similar to domestic, people will be looking at the cost and complexity alongside confidence.
"A lot of people have shunted their summer holidays until next year but the domestic market, while not back to what it was, is pretty strong and growing. We're not at 2019 levels, but we're getting there.
"The government has to do something to ensure we can open up the international travel market again."
Mr Keddie confirmed that for the second month running, Belfast International is the UK’s busiest airport for domestic flights, beating the likes of Heathrow, Gatwick and Glasgow.
He added: "In July we were the busiest UK airport for domestic passengers but international is still lagging way behind and people won't change until the government changes the rules.
During July, Belfast operated at around 44% of its 2019 level, which rose to 55% in August and Mr Keddie expects a similar return this month.
"Compare that to Heathrow, which operated at less than 20% in July, and it shows the damage still being caused to the industry.
"Back in January I was expecting us to have a much better summer but I think we've done OK."
The airport is holding a jobs fair on September 23 when a number of companies based on the site will be offering roles in areas around security, ground handling, retail and catering.
Mr Keddie said: "Recruiting is going to be difficult in the current environment as there are a lot of jobs on offer out there.
"We estimate that around 1,000 jobs were lost across the site during the pandemic so we're currently sitting at about 4,000 employees.
"Businesses on the site are gradually reopening again in line with passenger numbers returning to normal and that helps the airport come alive a bit more. Like anywhere, buildings are only bricks and mortar until they have people inside them.
"It's a case of chicken and egg as we need the passengers to open more things up. It's brilliant to see them streaming in again and while it would be better if it was busier, it does make a huge difference having passengers in the terminal.
Last month Ryanair said it will pull its Belfast International routes to Alicante, Barcelona Girona, Gdansk, Krakow, London Stansted, Malaga, Malta, Manchester, Milan Bergamo and Warsaw on October 30.
Mr Keddie said while the airline's decision is disappointing it had been anticipated.
He explained: "As we had been expecting such a move, we have been engaging with both our existing and other new airlines to provide continuity on the routes being vacated by Ryanair and to help sustain employment in the aviation industry at a local level."
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