UK travel system is holding back recovery, says London Stansted

  • London Stansted Airport calls for an end to expensive PCR tests
  • Government data shows it has failed on its promise to sequence tests for variants, while passengers spend millions
  • Despite a recent increase in traffic, MAG, which owns and operates East Midlands, London Stansted and Manchester airports had 81.4% fewer passengers in July this year compared to 2019

The UK’s traffic light system and travel restrictions mean the country’s aviation sector is recovering at just half the rate of the rest of Europe, according to Steve Griffiths, Managing Director at London Stansted Airport.

The airport has today published passenger figures for July, which show that passenger levels were down 75% on July 2019, when the airport served 2,758,524 passengers, compared to just 690,366 in the same month this year.

Stansted said that since the review of the traffic light system on 4th August – which saw more countries added to the green and amber lists – volumes have picked up slightly but remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

With just three weeks of the peak summer season remaining, it said the requirement for passengers to pay for PCR tests, even when fully vaccinated and returning from low-risk destinations, was “out of step” with the rest of Europe and holding back the recovery of UK airports and airlines.

Stansted’s latest traffic figures come as data from Airports Council International – Europe (ACI EUROPE) has laid bare the extent to which the UK is falling behind the rest of the continent when it comes to the revival of international travel. Figures show that Europe’s airports have already recovered to around 59% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to just 28% in the UK.

The UK’s blanket requirement for PCR testing and pre-departure testing differs dramatically to the approach taken by most European countries, which are allowing fully vaccinated passengers to travel between low-risk destinations without having to take any tests.

The Government has said PCR testing is needed to enable genomic sequencing to take place to identify variants of concern, but the latest official data shows only around 5% are actually being sent for sequencing and brings into question the need for passengers to take these tests.

While the Government has asked the Competition and Markets Authority to look into the testing industry to see if there are ways to reduce prices, this data highlights the need to scrap the blanket requirement for PCR tests altogether for vaccinated travellers to make travel more affordable.

Steve Griffiths, Managing Director, said:

“While it is encouraging that more people are taking the opportunity to go on holiday or visit friends and family overseas, we are still yet to see a meaningful recovery in international travel.

“We won’t see a proper sustained recovery until the UK overhauls its costly and restrictive travel regime, which is out of step with the rest of Europe.

“UK passengers continue to be subjected to onerous and expensive PCR testing on the basis they will be sequenced to protect the UK from variants of concern, but it is clear this is not happening.

“Passengers - especially those who are fully vaccinated - will be right to question why they are forced to pay the extra cost for tests which are not being used in the way we were told they would be.

“Meanwhile, the recovery of our sector – which supports millions of jobs and billions of pounds in economic value – continues to lag significantly behind the rest of Europe as a result of excessive restrictions in place in the UK.

“We need a simple and sustainable system for travel, which people can understand and that is proportionate to the public health position here in the UK. The Government must act urgently to review the system and re-evaluate the need for expensive PCR tests.”

MAG July 2021 Passenger Traffic Statistics:



London Stansted

East Midlands


July 21 total





July 21 % change year on year





July 21 % change on July 2019





Rolling 12-month total to July 21





12-month total % change year on year





Rolling 12-month total to July 20





Airports Council International – Europe (ACI EUROPE)

Source: Airports Council International – Europe (ACI EUROPE)

European vs UK recovery:

Country /Territory

Current passenger volume % of 2019











Southern Europe


Nordic and Baltic


Eastern Europe