In an in-depth interview with the Bulletin, Steve Heapy, the CEO of Jet2 and Jet2holidays, started by saying that he is missing Mallorca, that it's very difficult at the moment for everybody and that trying to get some sense out of governments is a bit challenging.
Jason Moore: Do you think we will be seeing British tourists in Mallorca this summer?
Steve Heapy: I do. The British government has been saying that they have been following the data. The data are suggesting that infection rates are going down and vaccination rates are going up. I don't think it can stay like this for much longer. If governments do follow the data, they're going to have to open up the borders. There's obviously a reluctance to do so from politicians because the easy thing and the safe thing is to keep the status quo. But people want to travel. People, I guess, have a right to travel, and there's only so long that people will accept the situation, particularly if the majority of the population has been vaccinated.
JM: The Balearics were pretty angry that they and Spain weren't on the green list. There was talk of a safe air corridor because the number of cases here is obviously much lower than on the mainland. Do you think that these safe air corridors to the Balearics and the Canaries are a good idea?
SH: I do. If, as the government has been saying all along, the data drive the decision-making and the data support the idea of opening an air corridor, then it should be open. In the case of the Balearics, the data suggest that it is safe to open an air corridor. Infection rates are dropping and are low. Vaccination rates are in line with the European average and rising. Variants of concern are non-existent, and the access to genomic sequencing data, which is another thing the British government wants, is very good; it's better than Portugal, and Portugal is on the UK's green list.
JM: So what's stopping them? What's needed to get the air corridors going, so that we can get people coming here? Is it complicated, is it a political decision or is it more a transport issue?
SH: I think that day by day it is becoming more of a political issue. We've had, and I think we'll continue to have, significant amounts of delay at the UK border. Border Force are saying that it's taking fifteen times longer to check documents. We've seen queues already and despite Border Force saying that they're staffed adequately, at one of the airports in the UK yesterday we had people looking at what it was like and there were 330 people who arrived and 55-minute queues. So, the last thing we need is to get off to a bad start. If we have pictures in the newspapers at the weekend or early next week of extremely long queues of people, then I think that's going to do the recovery some damage. We're trying to put as much pressure on Border Force as possible to try and get them to get their act together.
JM: Is this Covid or is this Brexit, or a mixture of both?
SH: I don't think it's Brexit. I'm sure Covid has an element, but I think part of it is just Border Force not being prepared. We've had months to prepare, and we are prepared to start on June 24. We're in a good place. We've got loads of new procedures, so we're ok. Border Force are woefully underprepared.
JM: What does that feel like for you as a chief executive of a major travel company? It must be infuriating.
SH: It's very infuriating as a chief exec of a tour operator and airline. It's very infuriating as someone who wants to book a holiday and get away, and it's extremely infuriating as a taxpayer. Because I'm paying their wages. If it was a private company that had service levels like Border Force, then everyone would be calling for my head. But of course, you just get some guy in a uniform saying we make no apologies for protecting British borders, and that doesn't cut it.
JM: What message would you have for the Mallorcan tourist industry?
SH: The message is we will be there this summer. I think the Balearic government, because the British government looks at groups of islands, needs to make sure that it provides all the information related to infections, vaccines, genomic sequencing and variants of concern. All the information in as timely a manner as possible to the UK government, because it is assessing the data from each of the areas and deciding whether they should be red, amber or green. Just talking to the UK government and saying everything's ok, let customers in will not cut it. What will cut it is to focus on the data for assessing the red-amber-green status. That's one message: give them everything you can in as timely a manner as possible.
And the other thing is - we will be back. We're fighting very hard. We're lobbying the government, and personally I'm hopeful that we'll see the Balearics announced at the beginning of June for travel to start around mid-June. That's what we're pushing for.
And of course the third thing I'd say is remember the tour operators who have treated you with respect, remember the tour operators who have paid your billing from summer '20, unlike other tour operators. I try not to mention other vertically integrated, multinational European tour operators based in Germany. But I would say to hoteliers, we've shown our true colours through this. We've treated them with respect. Remember that please, when the market bounces back; remember who treated you well and help us to grow, and we will help the hoteliers grow.
JM: What would you like to see from the Balearics? What can we do to help you?
SH: Not a situation like we've got in the UK at the airports. The Spanish border force have got to try and get people through quickly. People haven't travelled for two years. They're reading lots of horror stories in the newspapers about the ability for them to travel and what it's going to be like in various places. We've got to give the customers as good an experience as possible. Can you imagine big queues at, let's say, Manchester Airport going out and then big queues getting into Spain. So when they're on holiday, it doesn't feel like they're on holiday. People shouting instructions at them everywhere. Then they've got to get a test and queue up, and then it's a nightmare going back from the airport in Spain, and then a nightmare when they land. Those horror stories are going to leak into the newspapers, so we've got to give people as good an experience as possible.
The other thing that's a big danger, I think, is that some people haven't worked in the hospitality industry for over a year now. It could be nearly two years, because theoretically the last time people worked properly was October 2019. It's going to take time for people to get back into it, for businesses to get back up to it, but we can't have a period of four weeks when everybody's getting up to speed. We've got to hit the ground running quality and service wise. That sometimes happens in normal seasons, but when people haven't worked for this long, we can't have this gradual build-up until we get to a great level of service.
JM: Do you think it would be a good idea for this season if the government were to scrap the tourist tax?
SH: Yes, I do. Anything that helps to recover the tourism industry, which is extremely important to the UK economy but also the Balearic economy, then they should. The government might say that it's there to fund green projects - I'm not sure if it is, as I don't know if they disclose the full expenditure derived from the tourist tax - but I think we've all done our bit for the environment over the past twelve months. We certainly have as an airline. Hotels have, and we've done more for the environment in the last twelve months by not operating than the tourist tax would have done. So, I see no harm in waiving the tourist tax for the remainder of the summer.
We've got to get this industry back on its feet, and the best way we're going to do this is by engendering confidence in travellers. The last thing we need is people having an awful experience. If they do, those stories will get back to the British press. 'Ooh, it was a nightmare in Mallorca', and then before you know it, bookings drop off and hotels will be half empty. We need everyone to come together. Airlines, tour operators - it would be handy if other tour operators, the ones I very cleverly avoided mentioning before would pay the hoteliers, so they've got some cash to actually start up the hotels. Everybody needs to give a great experience - local businesses, town halls, the governments; everybody's got to come together to give the best experience to customers.
JM: Do you think Mallorca will recover from this?
SH: Yes, I think it will, because the Balearic Islands, and Mallorca in particular, haven't really had visitors from the UK in well over a year. People miss it. Last year, people managed to get away to Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and they had a great time. Spain was closed, and people went away to these other destinations. The danger is that they've discovered these destinations and may go back.
We find that people tend to be a western Mediterranean or an eastern Mediterranean customer. They tend to stick to that area and move around that area. Last year, we saw there was virtually nowhere open in the western Mediterranean, so those people went to the east. Spain, the Balearics, the Canaries have to fight to get those customers back. These people have tried Turkey with a Caribbean-style all-inclusive, massive bits of land with waterparks, slides, private beaches, etc. People have tried that, and we've got to fight really hard to get the business back to Majorca.
I think the question about Magalluf remains. What are the government's plans for Magalluf? Do they want to take it up-market? How are they going to do it? Are they saying that young groups of guys and girls aren't welcome in Magalluf? We need some clarity as to what the plans are for this area. I don't really have clarity. What is the five-year plan for Magalluf? We've all been young once. We all want to go away and have a party. Shall we steer people away from Magalluf? Shall we tell them that Magalluf doesn't welcome them? Shall we send them somewhere else? What's Magalluf going to look like? It's all these questions that remain unanswered, and I really don't know what the plans are, and so I don't know whether we should be recommending Magalluf to young people or not.
The last thing I heard, pretty much, was that groups of guys and girls weren't welcome. We've not heard anything to the contrary about all-inclusives. We've not heard anything from the government. The last we heard was they'd closed Bar Street down, and there were court cases pending, but we've not heard anything. I really don't know what Magalluf is any more.
JM: What's it been like being in charge of a major travel company for past year or so?
SH: The biggest challenge has been dealing with the governments, trying to find out what the positions are. I do have some sympathy because the primary responsibility of any government is the safety of its citizens. And they are dealing with unprecedented circumstances and massive unknowns. But what we need are people who are decisive. They take a decision and live with the consequences.
Again I can sympathise with this, but the easiest thing for decision-makers to do is to stick with the status quo, which in this case is the lockdown, because no one's ever going to accuse them of playing fast and loose with lives. If they continue with the lockdown, that's the easy thing to do. The easy thing is to hide behind the decisions of the scientists, but at the end of the day we don't elect the scientists, we elect the politicians, and politicians at some stage are going to have to say 'Thank you, Mr. or Mrs. Scientist, thanks for what you say, but I'm going to open up the country'.
That's what politicians are paid for. They need to have courage to do what is the right thing rather than just hide behind the scientists. If we do hide behind the scientists forever, the whole world is just going to end up going bankrupt and nothing will ever work again, because scientists are ultra-cautious. That's why they're scientists. If they weren't all ultra-cautious, they'd be stuntmen. But they're scientists and they don't like doing things that have any modicum of risk at all. At some stage, governments are going to have say we're opening up, and we accept the infection rate is this, we accept there may be some deaths. They've done that for years with flu, with other diseases; they're going to have to do it with Covid.
That's been the most challenging bit. It's obviously been very sad. We've had to make some people redundant, and the people who have carried on working have been on reduced salary. Everyone within the company has been absolutely fantastic. They've done what is right. They've taken a bit of pain, we all have, but we're going to emerge from the other side in a very strong position. We're going to be financially robust.
I know it's a novel concept for some tour operators, but we'll be able to pay our hotels on time and in full, as we always do. We think we'll emerge from this stronger, because we've come together as a company. We've strengthened our balance sheet, and customer service wise we have been exemplary. We have been the best in the UK in terms of refunding customers, treating them well. Customer service, time taken to answer the phone - we've won award after award after award, and people will remember that.