06 February, 2023

Return to business as usual for aviation

Return to business as usual for aviation

Mark Harper, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Transport, reflects on plans to modernise, decarbonise and build talent in the aviation sector delivered at the Airport Operators Association conference on 31st January. 

The Rt Hon Mark Harper MP


It’s a pleasure to be here, delivering my first aviation speech since becoming Transport Secretary.

You could be forgiven over the last year for thinking you perhaps have heard ministers using that line before. It’s been frustrating, I know, for an industry eager to get on with the business of growth…especially after the devastating impact of of the Covid pandemic over the last few years.

So let me start by thanking all of you, not just for the hard work airports continued to do amidst last year’s political and economic turbulence, and that’s turbulence which I’m very pleased that this government – led by this Prime Minister – has ended, but also for the collaboration I’ve seen in the face of ongoing strike action at our borders. And I know you’ve heard earlier from Phil Douglas, the Director General of Border Force. And my department and Border Force have been working very closely with airports to make sure we have resourcing available and we minimise the disruption to the travelling public from that industrial action.

I would also like to acknowledge the recent unfortunate news about the collapse of Flybe and our thoughts are obviously with those affected. We’re working in the department with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to help the passengers affected to access alternative travel arrangements, and pointing staff to the support available from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

But I was also very pleased by the sector’s quick response not only with Ryanair, British Airways and EasyJet, stepping in with special fares for those passengers disrupted, but also the industry’s announcements around fast tracking recruitment processes, for the staff who sadly lost their jobs. All are actually welcome signs of a growing resilience within the sector and you’re focused on ensuring that you can retain and attract the skills and talent necessary for this industry to continue growing.

It’s been 6 years since I was last in government. When I was last in government, aviation’s challenge wasn’t about whether it would grow….it was about by how much….and about whether the industry could keep pace with the rising demand. Pre-pandemic, we had the largest aviation sector in Europe with air transport and aerospace worth £22 billion to our national economy, providing nearly a quarter of a million jobs. Passenger numbers at UK airports had grown by over a third since 2009 and the eve of the pandemic saw the highest number ever.


That conversation, however, quickly changed. And the last few years have been the toughest in this industry’s 100-year history. Where UK airports saw a 99% drop in passenger numbers at the height of the pandemic and globally, the sector faced a fall in passenger revenue of over £250 billion in 2021.

Some of you may know that as a backbencher I watched that unfold. I led a group of MPs who wanted a balanced approach to COVID-19 restrictions. Outside of government, I felt one of the jobs of MPs was to hold the government to account, and ask tough questions about policy to make sure we made the right decisions. We did obviously have a duty to protect public health, but we also had a duty to business and workers. And the Prime Minister, while he was Chancellor, obviously put in a significant package of support for the economy.

Every restriction introduced also needed a proper exit plan, so that we could safeguard both lives and livelihoods. And that was I think the right approach…and we put something like £8 billion into the aviation sector…and we moved further and faster than any other nation in re-opening our economy and borders as soon as it was safe to do so.

Since then, and thanks to many in this room, we’ve managed to make sure that aviation, arguably the sector hardest hit by the pandemic, is showing robust signs of recovery. I know for example that Gatwick and Luton both will submit applications for modernisation and expansion programmes. Investments which represent a vote of confidence in aviation’s future. If approved, are set to generate significant benefits for passengers..

We’re also seeing consistently busier airports and fuller flights, with passenger levels now at 85% of pre-pandemic levels. And where the industry struggled to meet this increased demand last year, the government stepped in, working with you to rebuild resilience.

For example, our passenger charter gave the public confidence to travel. We accelerated the vetting process to speed up staff recruitment. But that’s not all. Today (31 January 2023), I can confirm that slots rules will return to normal this summer. But we’re maintaining the safety net introduced during COVID-19 and airlines can hand back 5% of slots to help minimise last minute cancellations.

And I know some of you are trialling next generation security, so that this new technology will better detect prohibited items, allowing passengers to pass through security more swiftly. Just some of the measures that will not only support the sector’s recovery, but help us turn recovery into renewal.

Aviation Council

What renewal looks like is the remit of the Aviation Council, which I will be launching tomorrow. The council brings the full force of industry and government to bear on 10 key issues. Setting the industry on course for long term success, ensuring aviation turns its back on an industrial model no longer fit for purpose and moves towards a more sustainable one, including modern infrastructure, cleaner energy and an increasingly diverse pool of skills and talent.

So let me take each of those in turn.


On modernisation pre-pandemic, thousands of aircraft navigated a complex network of routes to operate safely in our airspace. Mapped in the 1950s, this network has struggled to deal with the surge in growth of modern air travel. Causing delays for passengers as planes circle airports waiting to land. It affects local communities which suffer from excess noise and pollution and ultimately, it increases costs for the industry.

The CAA, last week, launched a refreshed version of its Aviation Modernisation Strategy, to strengthen and upgrade our invisible infrastructure in the skies.

Modernisation will mean quicker and quieter flights, more choice and value for passengers, and futureproofing our airspace to allow safe access for drones and even spacecraft. Something I didn’t realise I had responsibility for before I started in this job, but having had the chance to authorise Spaceport Cornwall I realised that’s also under my responsibilities. That plan is wholeheartedly backed by the government and we’ve provided £9.2 million in funding to support airports throughout this change.

Now I realise some in this room will be frustrated at the speed of progress. And while it’s right that any modernisation aligns with our world leading safety, security and environmental standards, the aviation minister will continue working closely with the CAA and airports involved to drive this forward.


A more efficient and cleaner airspace brings me onto arguably this industry’s greatest challenge – decarbonisation. At current rates, aviation will become one of largest carbon emitting sectors by 2050. I don’t support the view that aviation must decline to meet our climate goals. But it must now earn the right to grow by weaning itself off fossil fuels. It’s why we’ve developed the Jet Zero Strategy, which set a 2050 net zero target for the sector.

An ambitious, yes, but the early signs are encouraging, particularly around the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Take Virgin Atlantic, who this year, thanks to government funding, will conduct the first ever net zero transatlantic flight. Its Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines will be powered by cooking oils that otherwise would have gone to waste. It will be a remarkable achievement, demonstrating UK leadership in an area that could support over 5,000 jobs by 2035.

Fuels are just one part of decarbonising the industry. Airports are also playing a crucial role, with many of you already setting ambitious net zero targets. We’ll soon publish our call for evidence on a 2040 target for net zero airport operations something David Silk will expand on when he speaks to you later today.

Skills and talent

Finally, let me turn to skills and talent. I recognise that the pandemic saw swathes of the workforce face disruption and the immediate priority is to retain that talent. Already, the aviation skills recruitment platform has helped over 1,500 people find jobs and training. But we cannot talk about building a sector fit for the future if our approach to recruiting talent remains stuck in the past.

When I was growing up back where I came from in a working-class household in Swindon, a career in aviation was never suggested as an option for people from my background. And even today, too many people still feel parts of the industry are not for them. But I was talking this morning actually about a fantastic initiative about getting more apprentices involved. And one of the team I was speaking to had actually been to a school in my constituency, where they’ve had people becoming degree apprentices working in the aerospace sector in Gloucestershire. Actually, when you talk to those young people and you listen to what they’ve learnt about the sector, they are enthused, excited about joining what is an exciting sector focused on the future, with all the opportunities in front of them.

But there are too many people who think the industry is not for them. Look at professional pilots – only 6% are women. It can’t be right that we discount half the population, half of the skills and talent available for the sector. Training providers are largely concentrated in the south-east and high training costs put off those from poorer backgrounds. In fact I heard recently from some youngsters who were very keen to join the industry and become pilots, but had no idea how they would make the finances work from the backgrounds from which they came. Many are unaware of the range of careers offered by the industry, including corporate roles, data analysis, engineering and IT.

And ultimately, it’s the industry that will lose out, unable to meet the challenges ahead with a workforce lacking in diversity of thought and experience. Through our Generation Aviation programme, we’re starting to put this right. Our new cohort of Aviation Ambassadors, representing the brightest and best of the industry, will go into schools and local communities to share their experiences and try and enthuse more people to want to join this fantastic industry.

And tomorrow, I’ll announce the winners of the £700,000 Reach for the Sky Challenge Fund. Each winning project will open aviation up to the breadth of talent across the country, from engineering and flying lessons aimed at those from poorer backgrounds, to increasing accessibility for people with disabilities. It’s vital we send a clear message that aviation is for everyone.


I started by talking about the pace of change over the past 6 years. The conversation moving from seemingly limitless growth, then to survival and over the past year, to recovery. Now we’re able to start a more optimistic, conversation about the future. About an industry no longer constrained by outdated practices, but modernising its infrastructure and operations. No longer the poster child for environmental decline, but committed to a future of sustainable flight and attracting talent from every background.

These are just some of the areas where aviation has a golden opportunity to move from recovery to renewal and I look forward to working with all of you to make that happen.

Thank you.