The boss of Britain’s biggest airport group has said there is “no doubt” that Brexit has damaged the UK economy, adding that it has “massively exacerbated” worker shortages.
Charlie Cornish, the chief executive of MAG, which owns Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports, said problems with recruitment were making the UK less competitive.
Manchester airport was one of the facilities worst affected by disruption this year as a shortage of frontline staff left it unable to handle the post-Covid demand for travel, with huge queues and chaotic scenes in security and baggage halls.
Speaking at the Airlines 2022 conference in London, Cornish said: “There’s no doubt that Brexit has damaged the UK economy, 99% of leading economists would tell you that. You just have to look at the rate of growth now, and that’s significant.”
He added: “If that carries on, the UK’s ability to be competitive will get eroded every single year. We do need the UK government to look at how to actually get a sensible economic growth plan back, with aviation at the centre of that.”
Cornish said that while other factors such as Covid had structurally altered the labour force, the problems were exacerbated by fewer Europeans coming back into the UK. “That does damage the UK aviation sector’s ability to recruit workforce at scale and at pace,” he said. “Pre-Brexit, that problem was never there.”
He added: “Aviation is wholly linked to GDP. We have to have an open conversation: how are we going to solve the Brexit-related disruption? If you look at the economic recovery in the EU, they’re much further ahead of the UK. Nobody’s going to be able to say that’s not due to Brexit.”
Charlotte Vere, the aviation minister, when asked later at the conference to name a Brexit benefit for the industry, suggested that the UK would be able to modernise its airspace. “Our ability to proceed with airspace modernisation is different from in the EU … I see that as a constraint [on the EU]. From our perspective, I believe we will be able to develop our aviation sector,” she said.
Willie Walsh, the head of global airlines body Iata and former boss of the British Airways owner IAG, said there were clear indicators that UK aviation was recovering more slowly than Europe’s.
“It’s damaged the UK, from everything I’ve seen,” he said. “ I haven’t heard any politician articulate any benefit, and don’t see any Brexit benefit for aviation. If you can’t acknowledge that there’s a negative, they’re not going to be able to fix it.”
In response to Lady Vere’s comments, Walsh said: “Jesus, we’re an island, we’re going to reform our airspace? What, you’ll be able to fly from Heathrow to Manchester quicker than you can today?”
Walsh said Iata was confident that the wider aviation industry would recover further in 2023, despite the war in Ukraine and other economic headwinds. “Globally, we’re looking at positive growth. The UK is an outlier.”