Emergency government action is needed to prevent the UK aviation sector being wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

Virgin Atlantic is to request an industry bailout of £7.5 billion in a direct plea to prime minister Boris Johnson.

And trade body Airlines UK has appealed for a support package worth several billion pounds.

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US travel restrictions will hit all transatlantic routes from Tuesday, while flights have been culled to European destinations such a Spain and Italy.

British Airways warned on Friday that it was coming under ‘immense pressure’ with aircraft set to be grounded, routes suspended and staff laid off. 

Virgin Atlantic is expected to follow suit with cuts amid a bookings downturn and riisng cancellations.

The government said it was open to supporting all businesses, including airlines.

But Airlines UK said the government’s “prevarication” and “bean counting” had to stop.

“We’re talking about the future of UK aviation – one of our world-class industries – and unless the government pulls itself together who knows what will be left of it once we get out of this mess,” it added.

Virgin Atlantic coronavirus plea

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss told the Sunday Times: “This is not [just] about Virgin Atlantic; it is about making it available for industry.

“This is a systemic problem which differentiates no one. You cannot imagine the UK without the thriving airline industry, which tourism and trade depend on.”

He added: “We are talking about profitable, viable businesses, but they cannot be healthy, viable businesses if there’s zero traffic.

“I’m not asking for a handout – we will pay it back.”

Balpa calls for coronavirus action

The British Airline Pilots Association urged the government to act immediately to support the “creaking” UK airline industry.

Carriers are scaling back operations due to a slump in summer bookings and asking staff to take unpaid leave, freezing pay and considering redundancies.

The pilots’ union had previously called on ministers to remove Air Passenger Duty for six months to ease the burden on airlines, but the request was ignored in the Budget.

Instead the government has promised a review in the spring – which Balpa believes could be too late.

A petition has been set up to ask the government to consider measures to help the industry, including an immediate waiver from APD for the next six months.

Balpa general secretary Brian Strutton said: “There is a danger that this pandemic will leave UK aviation in pieces. Airlines need the government to step in now.

“Removing APD is just one step that could help airlines make it through their financial woes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The reality is, with such a loss in forward bookings for the summer – the time when airlines make all their profit – the airlines have had to look at ways to save money to keep the companies afloat.

“While these measures may help the airlines save some money in the short term, the long term effects of losing such a significant part of their workforce means that when the situation has passed, they may not be able to scale back up quickly enough. Pilots require frequent training and recency to be able to fly, it’s not as simple as just re-employing people or raising hours back up.

“This is a tough time for many industries, but aviation is at the forefront, taking the brunt and such a crucial sector to the UK economy and connectivity, we think special measures must be taken to keep the industry going.”

The government said in a statement that it recognises the difficulties UK airlines are facing.

“We are engaging with the sector’s leadership to support workers, businesses and passengers,” it said.

“We have influenced the European Commission to relax flight slots and HMRC is ready to help all businesses, including airlines, and self-employed individuals, experiencing temporary financial difficulties due to coronavirus.”