The airlines industry wants a government bailout. Here’s what needs to happen

As the global health crisis unfolds, airlines have been hit hard. But why are airlines queueing up for a government bailout? Strong links with ministers might tempt the chancellor to dish out public cash to save these corporations – when a real Covid-19 recovery plan would prioritise people and planet instead.


Why, at a time of a global health crisis, would the aviation industry be near the front of the queue for a government bailout? Particularly in the week after Easyjet distributed £174m to shareholders from its profits, including £60m to EasyJet founder Stelios himself – while asking staff to take unpaid leave? 

Well, there’s a number of reasons. Several airlines have been struggling financially, as shown by FlyBe’s problems earlier in the year, or have prioritised paying dividends to shareholders over putting money aside to cover emergencies. Norwegian Airlines and Alitalia, who’ve just been bailed out by their governments, were in need of emergency assistance before Covid-19, and doubly so now. 

But those are not the only reasons.

Airline companies have always had strong links to the government, with a very strong industry lobby. Together with international agreements governing flying, this has enabled airlines and airports to avoid taxes (fuel tax and VAT, for example) and get state support. 

For once, the industry’s requests for special treatment might not be going down as smoothly as normal. The Chancellor wrote to the airlines last week to say he won’t be rushed into a bailout, and they should look for financial support from their shareholders first. 

But there is a very high chance that the companies’ bosses and shareholders will refuse to budge, and the UK government will come under increasing pressure as other countries bail out their airlines. 

All of these circumstances are a major threat to the job security of many airline and airport workers, and steps need to be taken to ensure they are properly supported and not left in the lurch.

So that’s why Greenpeace together with 25 other groups have written to the Chancellor to ask him to only provide bailouts designed to protect workers, the public, the wider economy, and the planet, not shareholders and the airlines’ or airports’ owners.

Bailouts must support a just recovery 

Right now people are doing everything they can to protect each other and support our valiant NHS on the frontline of the Covid-19 health crisis. But as we look to the future, it’s clear that the climate and nature emergencies will still remain and the world will need a massive green transformation of infrastructure to help reduce our emissions over the coming years. 

We know that the airline sector’s carbon emissions have been increasing globally, and airports are a major contributor to local air and noise pollution, risking public health. That’s why any bailouts that are granted to airlines simply have to address these challenges together, and avoid making them worse. 

Any support packages for airline companies must set conditions in a number of key areas:

  • protect workers so there are no pay cuts or lay-offs due to the Covid-19 crisis.
  • protect the climate – the airlines need to start cutting their emissions to meet the globally agreed climate targets, without relying on offsets (which are unreliable)
  • protect public money by giving the government a stake in any companies it supports, so it can set the industry on a more sustainable path. Airlines also need to finally pay their fair share in taxes.

One part of the solution for the aviation sector’s climate problem would be to introduce a Frequent Flier Levy. This would help reduce demand by shifting the tax burden to frequent leisure fliers, without removing access to flights from those with limited alternatives, limited resources, or only travel once in a while. 

As well as measures to decrease demand for flights in the future, the government must also lay the groundwork to reduce the emissions of our transport. This could start with investing in rail and bus networks nationally and internationally, as well as powering those networks with renewables. 

[If you’d like to see the open letter in full please scroll down to the bottom of the page]

Government needs to protect people and planet 

All of our lives have suddenly changed, and the government must show solidarity with impacted workers. Before bailouts are handed out, our government must ask itself if the money will protect people and support positive change for climate and nature. That means using public funding to support people and the environment upon which they depend. 


Dear Chancellor,

We write regarding the economic support package that the Government is currently considering for the aviation sector in light of COVID-19. It is essential that no aviation sector worker is put into further hardship in these challenging times: the public purse can and must support people working in the airline industry, to avoid the loss of thousands of people’s immediate incomes and their economic security.

It is vital that money provided to support the public interest is spent in the public interest. Airlines and airports have benefitted from significant subsidies and tax exemptions to date, with very limited constraints on their operations. You were therefore right, in your letter to the sector on 24th March, to make clear that bespoke support for individual companies will only be considered as a last resort, once all commercial avenues have been fully explored. It is also right that any government support should be structured to protect taxpayers’ interests, and that the Government takes account of the contribution businesses make to the UK economy and society.

However, further stringent conditions need to be applied to reflect the multiple crises we are facing. While all of our minds are rightly focused on the need to protect ourselves and our communities against the serious health threat of COVID-19 and its wider economic impacts, the climate and nature emergencies have not gone away and are quietly getting worse. Indeed, aviation sector carbon emissions are increasing globally, and airports are a major contributor to local air and noise pollution, risking public health. Any bailouts that are granted must be used to address these challenges together, and avoid exacerbating them. Therefore any support packages for airline companies must set conditions to protect workers’ rights, prevent public money from being diverted into the pockets of shareholders, and reorientate the industry towards helping to meet the Paris climate agreement. Demand reduction measures should be implemented gradually over time to bring the sector within safe limits for the climate. These measures must be accompanied by the government laying the groundwork to fully decarbonise transport, starting with investing in rail and bus networks nationally and internationally, electrifying and powering those networks with renewables.

The conditions for any state support package for companies in the aviation sector must include:


The government should take and maintain a controlling stake post-crisis to protect public finances and to exert necessary environmental and social oversight on this sector, rather than offering loans or grants with no strings attached.


Adoption of near-term climate targets by the sector in line with the Paris Agreement, and clear, transparent plans to meet them that do not rely on offsets but a reduction in carbon emissions in absolute terms. To date, aviation has been a ‘rogue’ sector on tackling the climate emergency, with high carbon growth plans jeopardising the UK’s ability to meet our national and international commitments. The continuation of this behaviour must not be enabled with public money.


Acceptance of workers’ rights and union representation, and collective bargaining over wages and conditions. This must include a real Living Wage and no lay-offs for the duration of the corona emergency, with firms taking full advantage of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and, in the longer term, full support for workers transitioning to lower carbon industries with more potential for growth.


The laws around dividend payment must be suspended during any bailout, to prevent public money being diverted into the pockets of shareholders. The sector must finally begin paying its fair share in taxes, and put a cap on executive pay.

A new fiscal regime for aviation should be introduced that is fairer, helps reduce emissions in the sector, and raises additional revenues to invest in zero carbon transport options. A well-designed Frequent Flier Levy or Air Miles Levy, replacing the existing Air Passenger Duty, could reduce demand without removing access to flights from those with limited alternatives, or limited resources, by shifting the tax burden to frequent leisure fliers.

All of our lives have suddenly changed, and the Government must show solidarity with impacted workers. At the same time, the airline industry’s ongoing expansion is causing significant damage to the climate, adding to environmental costs whilst paying very little tax. Public money must be used to address social and environmental priorities, as well as economic needs. While workers from the sector and others across the country are worrying about their health and how they will pay their rent, public money cannot and must not be used to pay bonuses or dividends to shareholders. When the banks were bailed out a decade ago no such measures were applied; these banks continued to fail, and continue to ignore the public interest and fuel the climate emergency today.

We urge you to resist any aviation industry lobby attempts to rush the Government into an unconditional and unfair bailout package. Instead, the Government must use this moment to firmly embed the social and environmental conditions above, which would ensure proper support and protection is given to workers, and that the industry is required to transition to a more sustainable model in the long-term.

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca Newsom, Head of Political Affairs, Greenpeace UK
Leo Murray, Director of Innovation, Possible
Mathew Lawrence, Director, Common Wealth
Anna Hughes, Director, Flight Free UK
Anna Vickerstaff, Senior UK Campaigner,
Carys Roberts, Executive Director, IPPR
Christina and Victoria Smyth, Co-chairs, H-and-F no third runway
David Adler, Fellow, European University Institute
Dorothy Guerrero, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Global Justice Now
Fran Boait, Executive Director, Positive Money
Gabrielle Jeliazkov, Lead Campaigner for Just Transition in the North Sea Campaign, Platform London
Fatima Ibrahim and Hannah Martin, Co Executive Directors, Green New Deal UK
James Meadway, Economist and former advisor to Shadow Chancellor
Jamie Peters, Director of Campaigning Impact, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
John Stewart, Chair, HACAN
Kerry Moscogiuri, Director of Supporter Campaigns and Communications, Amnesty International UK
Luke Hildyard, Executive Director, High Pay Centre
Miatta Fahnbulleh, CEO, New Economics Foundation
Neil Spurrier, Teddington Action Group
Peter Sanders, Chairman, Stop Stansted Expansion
Dr Richard Hull, Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Goldsmiths, University of London
Robert Palmer, Executive Director, Tax Justice UK
Roger Haydon, Chairman, Aircraft Noise Action Group
Rose Bridger, Coordinator, Global Anti-Aerotropolis Movement
Thomas M. Hanna, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative
Will Stronge, Director, Autonomy

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