LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will spend 75 million pounds ($93 million) to get stranded citizens home on charter flights, foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Monday, adding that airlines would be flexible in offering commercial routes where possible.
Countries have closed airspace and restricted travel to contain the spread of coronavirus, and easyJet earlier on Monday grounded its entire fleet.
Tens of thousands of stranded British travellers will be flown home under the new arrangement, which sees airlines including British Airways, easyJet, Virgin, Jet2 and Titan offering alternative bookings where routes are canceled.
“Where commercial flights are no longer running, the government will provide the necessary financial support for special charter flights to bring UK nationals back home,” Raab said at a news conference.
“We’ve designated 75 million pounds to support those flights and the airlines in order to keep the cost down and affordable for those seeking to return to the UK.”
In a letter to the airlines, Raab and transport minister Grant Shapps said the repatriation efforts would prioritize the vulnerable but said the special flights were not intended for symptomatic passengers, who should self-isolate.
The chartered flights will operate on a strict cost-recovery basis paid by the taxpayer, ticketed through a government-procured management company, at fares determined by the foreign office (FCO).
“Those genuinely unable to pay will be offered an emergency loan by the FCO if they have exhausted all other avenues,” the letter said.
Talks between the government and airlines over a broader support package for the sector have so far not yielded a result.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Wednesday that talks over a support mechanism were continuing, playing down a suggestion by finance minister Rishi Sunak that airlines should look to raise their own cash first.
“We acknowledge that this is a challenging time for airlines both operationally and financially,” Monday’s letter said, without addressing the issue of support for the sector.
The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) called for clarity over the support that airlines would be getting and also sought reassurance that airline staff would have protective equipment.
“The cost involved in bringing hundreds of thousands of people home will be incredible,” BALPA General Secretary Brian Strutton said.
“Our airlines are already struggling to cope financially and the government’s promised financial support is yet to materialize,” he added.
Reporting by Alistair Smout, Paul Sandle and Costas Pitas, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison