Fix testing fiasco to put us back in air, says Virgin Atlantic boss 

The boss of Virgin Atlantic is ramping up calls for mass Covid testing to be introduced to help revive the aviation industry and the economy.

Describing the past six months as ‘devastating and humbling’, Shai Weiss warned of an extended recession and soaring unemployment without a fully functioning test regime.

Aviation has pinned its hopes on new systems to cut quarantine times and open up air ‘bridges’ between destinations such as London and New York.

Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss has warned of an extended recession and soaring unemployment without a fully functioning test regime

Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss has warned of an extended recession and soaring unemployment without a fully functioning test regime

Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss has warned of an extended recession and soaring unemployment without a fully functioning test regime

Bosses want travellers to be tested at the airport and then re-tested a few days later to cut the 14-day quarantine time which is crippling the sector and wrecking families’ travel plans.

The Daily Mail has campaigned to get Britain flying again but hopes for a breakthrough on airport testing this week appear to have been dashed with ministers instead asking for a ‘rapid review’ of using testing to ease restrictions on travellers.

Weiss, who has been at Virgin Atlantic for six years and chief executive for nearly two, said: ‘Without mass testing, the economic recovery of the UK will not take off in its time of need.

‘We now expect an extended recession that will probably go into next year. Some 500,000 jobs in the UK are at risk without action.’

Virgin Atlantic has already introduced pre-flight testing for its cabin crew and pilots and Weiss now wants the Government to open travel corridors between London and New York and New Jersey, where he says infection rates have fallen.

‘The need for quarantining there should be removed,’ said the 52-year-old.

‘We need to differentiate between New York and New Jersey, and other places that are now exhibiting rates of infection that are lower than the UK, so that quarantine can be removed and movement resumed.’

Transatlantic flying represents 70 per cent of Virgin Atlantic’s network. 

The US borders have been shut since March 16 for non-US nationals, and passengers arriving in the UK from the US have been subject to 14 days quarantine – measures that Weiss said have been in place far longer than originally anticipated.

‘It’s such a significant contributor for the UK economy,’ said Weiss. ‘We should take the first step and say that on arrival from New York and New Jersey, if you show that you are a resident you can come into the UK.’

He believes the US will reciprocate. The company last month achieved what many thought impossible with a bailout of £1.2billion, involving only private funds with no state help, taking it closer to securing its survival.

Weiss said the Government did not refuse to bail out the company, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak made it clear in a letter to the aviation industry in March that it would be the lender of last resort only after all other avenues had been exhausted.

He acknowledged that in countries such as France, Germany and the US, governments have offered support. 

Fighting to survive: Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss, right, with Virgin founder Richard Branson, centre

Fighting to survive: Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss, right, with Virgin founder Richard Branson, centre

Fighting to survive: Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss, right, with Virgin founder Richard Branson, centre

‘We respect the Government’s framework but others are not being held to the same standards and we need to ensure that the UK retains that competitive edge vis a vis France, the Netherlands and Germany,’ said Weiss.

Unsurprisingly, Weiss said this was the most challenging time he has faced professionally, adding: ‘It’s been devastating. Devastating and humbling.’

And he warned that Virgin Atlantic, like other airlines, faced a battle to survive. ‘Of course there were days I doubted whether we could achieve everything,’ said Weiss.

‘This was a very complex process. But my job is to wake up, dust myself down and start all over again. Yes there were moments of doubt but not ones that clouded my conviction or belief to get it done.’

Virgin Atlantic, which was on track to return to profitability before Covid took hold, has had to cut nearly half its workforce of around 10,000.

‘It’s been devastating and a tremendous sacrifice, but I feel we are doing everything we can to ensure survival while not losing the fight for every job,’ said Weiss.

He has kept staff informed, with up to 10,000 people on the line on conference calls ‘with the whole company hearing it from me in my own voice’.

It plans to introduce a voluntary, company-financed furlough scheme for 600 crew members when the Government-backed scheme ends. 

Arsenal fan Weiss, who lives in London, holds an MBA from Columbia University and a degree from the City University of New York, Baruch College. 

Before joining the Virgin Group he held several senior management positions at NTL:Telewest (now Virgin Media).

Earlier in his career, he established the European office of early-stage technology venture fund JVP and was a senior associate with Morgan Stanley, the investment bank.

Outside work he says he ‘reads the New Yorker magazine from cover to cover and attempts to play basketball’.

But his goal now is to secure the future of Virgin Atlantic, founded by Sir Richard Branson 36 years ago, and ‘ensure the next 36 years are super-duper’.

He said: ‘We have taken a huge step forward, but the fight for survival for many companies in response to the pandemic continues. 

‘We are adding more routes – the company recently announced it will start flying to Pakistan from December – so there is a great sense of renewal.’

He expects travel in 2021 to be at half the level of what it was in 2019 and doesn’t think passenger numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.

‘But I hope and expect that with the introduction of a vaccine and improvements in treatment, next year will be a better year than this one,’ he said.

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