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Swissport UK chief Jason Holt addresses the Transport Select Committee yesterday

It would be hard not to be impressed by Swissport UK CEO Jason Holt, who, at yesterday’s UK Transport Select Committee meeting, clearly laid out the challenges for both his company and rivals WFS, Menzies and Dnata.

He told the committee his company had seen a “95%, devastating drop in income”, and with 70% of costs being wages, he wanted to do everything possible to protect jobs.

But, he added: “We’re absolutely hobbled.”

UK ground handlers don’t have a trade association, so the CEOs of the four big companies have been working together to get their message across. But, said Mr Holt, representation to government has been difficult.

“We’ve had robotic answers, and are being stonewalled by the Treasury,” he said. “It’s a fight for survival. We are running out of cash, and there is no coherence from number 10.”

Mr Holt, who said he himself had been out cleaning aircraft, wearing PPE that his company had had the foresight to acquire in large numbers in February, added that while the handlers were “highly appreciative of the job retention scheme”, it was not enough.

“It’s a lifeboat, but we would really like clarity about August and beyond.”

The handlers are asking for flexibility in the furlough scheme, so staff can work part-time and be furloughed part-time, as and when aviation comes back.

The handlers do not want a bailout, he said: “Bailouts are for companies that are failing. What we need is cashflow management.

“We are a very proud, very well-run business. We are very lean and work in a very competitive sector. But cashflow management, such as business rate relief and VAT, PAYE and National Insurance holidays would be a start.”

And he urged the government to make loans more accessible, claiming the high street banks were not participating. In the rest of Europe, banks were making assessments on business from pre-Covid times – in the UK, banks are assessing businesses in their current state.

But, he warned: “If we [the handlers] go bust, aviation stops.”

Mr Holt called for the government to establish an aviation strategy.

“The UK is about to go its own way. But for trade agreements, aviation is key, whichever way you slice it…Right now, the government does not have a coherent strategy for aviation, and without that there is no fulcrum from which we can build.

“If the government remains asleep at the wheel, our competitors in other parts of Europe will shoot past us as we head towards a crash.”

He added that while the government was quick to apply aviation-wide taxes, such as APD, and to implement quarantine restrictions, it had been “very shy” of sector deals.

The committee also heard from unions that suggested airlines were “exaggerating” and “egging the pudding” over how long it would take to recover, in a bid to restructure and cut jobs.

You can watch the meeting here, on Parliament TV.

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