Fruit picker flights boost plane charter firm Air Partner

The extra flights helped Air Partner to a £6m pre-tax profit for the three months to the end of April

Plane charter business Air Partner has been boosted by a scramble to fly in migrant workers who can pick Britain's crops, amid growing fears of a huge staff shortage.

The London-listed firm said demand for its planes hit record levels as the world was gripped by coronavirus lockdowns in April – driven partly by demand for aircraft to bring agricultural labourers to Britain.

It highlights the lengths to which companies are going to recruit fruit and vegetable pickers, as concerns mount that fresh produce could be left to rot in the ground. 

UK farms are struggling to find the 90,000 workers needed to harvest the season's crops due to the pandemic.

Around 99pc of the UK's seasonal workers typically come from abroad, predominantly Eastern Europe. However, lockdown measures across the continent have blocked the usual migrant labour flows to British farms.

Ministers launched a "Pick for Britain" campaign last month to recruit furloughed and laid-off Britons to the fields in an attempt to fill the gap, but the scheme has been slow to secure recruits.

The extra flights helped Air Partner to a £6m pre-tax profit for the three months to the end of April.

In a trading update, the firm said the performance was driven by unusually high levels of activity in its charter and freight services. This included flying emergency shipments of protective personal equipment.

The company also carried out significant repatriation and evacuation work related to Covid-19, as the British government and others around the world raced to bring their citizens home.

Increasing demand for charter and freight services limited the impact of a drop in the company's private jet arm, which it said suffered from very weak demand as authorities continue to advise against non-essential travel. 

Air Partner said: "While we have enjoyed a strong first quarter, we currently have limited visibility beyond the next couple of months.

"However, we are confident that our teams will maximise any opportunities that arise, as has been the case so far this year."

Greg Poulton, an analyst at investment bank N+1 Singer, said: "Against a challenging market backdrop, this is an excellent result and is testament to the group’s strategy to diversify its exposure across the aviation chartering industry."

Shares rose by nearly a third to 50.3p. The stock is still trading about 30pc below its pre-crisis level.