The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has chaired talks with Britain’s airlines and airports about a potential multibillion-pound rescue plan, as the government insists key routes must stay open to bring stranded tourists home.
The airlines’ plight deteriorated significantly on Tuesday as the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that the British public were now advised to avoid any non-essential overseas travel for at least 30 days.
But as MPs raised cases of constituents stuck abroad, Raab said repatriation was costly and difficult to organise and the government intended to rely mainly on commercial airlines to return holidaymakers.
He also pointed to the necessity of keeping key freight routes open, to ensure supply-chains were not disrupted.
Shapps spoke to airline and airport executives in two separate conference calls on Wednesday. A senior Whitehall source said it was being made clear to airlines that any assistance would be conditional on ensuring critical routes remain open.
Ryanair announced it would end all but a handful of UK-Ireland flights from 24 March.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said on Tuesday that the government was discussing “a specific potential support package for airlines and airports”, as he announced a coronavirus rescue package for the economy including £330bn in taxpayer-backed loans for business.
Details of what rescue package the government might provide to the aviation sector were being thrashed out on Wednesday, with airlines talking of a “liquidity crisis” and looking for emergency loans.
Industry sources said the government was listening but had not made clear what assistance would be available, and there was some concern that ministers had been unaware of the full extent of the crisis, with up to 90% fewer passengers at many airports, including major hubs.
An Airport Operators Association spokesman said: “We need support in days not weeks.”
Virgin Atlantic had said earlier that up to £7.5bn might be needed to tide UK airlines through the next few months.
Confirmation that airlines would not lose airport slots by not operating flights has allowed many to ground fleets without fear of jeopardising future business.
Airlines still have concerns about their legal liability for any remaining passengers under EU compensation rules.
UK airports have called for emergency loans as a measure of last resort. Additional measures requested include the suspension of all government and local taxes on aviation, deferral of VAT payments and relief from airport policing costs. The industry also may look for short-term relaxation of rules on regular staff retraining, to enable operations to be quickly ramped back up once flights resume.
Charlie Cornish, the chief executive of MAG, which owns Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports, said: “It is key now for colleagues, customers and shareholders that we see specific and tangible support over the next few days.
“With revenues falling significantly over the coming months, airports big and small need to know exactly how the government is going to help them.”
Airlines are not the only transport industry asking for government help, with bus and rail operators expressing concern about a sharp drop-off in passenger numbers.