Aviation firms begin UK court action over traffic light system for global travel

Ryanair among firms accusing British government of ‘fundamental lack of transparency’

In a joint statement, aviation chiefs including Michael O’Leary of  Ryanair, called on the UK government to follow ‘a data-driven and risk management approach’.  Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

In a joint statement, aviation chiefs including Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, called on the UK government to follow ‘a data-driven and risk management approach’. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 

The owner of some of the UK’s busiest airports has accused the British government of a “fundamental lack of transparency” over the traffic light system of travel restrictions, in a British High Court challenge.

Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which owns Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports, has brought legal action against the UK’s department for transport and department of health and social care.

The company launched the case over a lack of published evidence on how the departments determine which countries are on the green, amber and red lists, under their travel restrictions.

Other parties in the legal action include Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic, tour operator Tui UK, easyJet and Aer Lingus’s parent company IAG.

On Friday Tom Hickman QC, for MAG, said there was no “internal consistency or logic” for the decisions, based on the data that was available to the airports.

He told the High Court: “We know there were deep-dive assessments for the countries that have moved bands, we don’t know how many other deep-dive assessments were done and what their outcomes were.”

He added: “We are told it is a risk-based approach, so what we say is that the criteria and the reasons must be sufficiently accessible.”

Mr Hickman said in written arguments: “The claimant’s core complaint is about the fundamental lack of transparency in the traffic light scheme, which means that the basis for categorising territories between the green or amber lists is unknown and appears arbitrary.”

‘Duty of transparency’

He said the British government had a “duty of transparency” over the data and advice guiding the traffic light system.

He argued the government has published no information or reasons to explain why countries remain on the amber list, with the only information supplied relating to red list countries, Portugal and territories moved to the green list in June.

Mr Hickman continued: “Without further information about the underlying rationale for the decisions, there appears to be no discernible internal consistency or logic to the decision based on the available data alone: for example, the Balearics were placed on the green list on June 24th, 2021, despite having a higher prevalence of Covid-19 than June 3rd, 2021, when they were kept on the amber list.”

The court heard that the three airports have operating costs of about €26 million (€30.31m) per month, with only a small fraction of revenue in return.

Mr Hickman said: “The defendants’ decisions to categorise countries as amber or green under the traffic light scheme, despite being of critical importance to the claimant and others in the travel industry, lack transparency and as such lack basic protections against arbitrary decision-making.”

He added that MAG could not infer the reasons for why certain countries are on the lists, adding that the decisions “appear aberrant”.

He argued that without the data, the industry could not make business planning decisions, make representations to the government or ascertain whether the decisions were rational and lawful.

Data

In a joint statement before the hearing, aviation chiefs including MAG chief executive Charlie Cornish and Michael O’Leary, Ryanair Group chief executive, called on the government to follow “a data-driven and risk management approach”.

The statement continued: “British consumers need to understand how decisions are made so they can confidently plan their travel, which is why we are asking the government to provide the data and advice that is underpinning its decision-making.”

David Blundell QC, for the two government departments, disputed MAG’s claim and denied there was a duty to publish extensive material, including expert scientific advice, to allow the airports to make representations.

In written arguments, he said: “Decisions need to be made urgently, in response to emerging data.

“It is inappropriate to impose a duty to give reasons in that context, not least because it would lead to a serious risk of delay in a decision-making process which is, of necessity, fast-moving and urgent.

“The defendants maintain that the duty to give reasons is simply not engaged in the current context.

“But even if it were, the duty would not require the government to give any more by way of reasons than it already has done.”

He also said that publishing the data and advice underpinning the traffic light system could affect diplomacy between the UK and other countries.

Mr Blundell continued: “Publication would be unduly burdensome and could have a serious impact on the UK’s international relations, prejudicing relationships with other countries and potentially leading to diminished co-operation in circumstances where such co-operation is crucial in the fight against the pandemic.”

The hearing before Lord Justice Lewis and Mr Justice Swift continues on Friday. – PA