Heathrow chief warns industry must prepare for periodic lockdowns

The chief executive of Heathrow airport has warned the aviation industry needs to prepare itself for periodic lockdowns around the world as countries are hit by new coronavirus outbreaks.

John Holland-Kaye said the airport was considering a range of possible responses as new infections swept across cities previously thought to have brought the pandemic under control, such as Melbourne, Australia, which this week was put into lockdown for six weeks.

“If we have periodic outbreaks around the world, we’ve got to have a different fall back to complete quarantine. There’s got to be an alternative that will just become part of the way we live our lives and we need to start working on that now,” Mr Holland-Kaye told the FT.

His warning came as millions of people who are eager to take summer holidays weigh the benefits and risks of flying overseas.

Mr Holland-Kaye noted it could take several years to develop a coronavirus vaccine and said it was essential that governments and industry came up with a way to ensure outbreaks did not result in another complete shutdown in air travel.

Heathrow has been calling on the UK government to lead the way in developing a common testing standard for airports around the world to screen passengers for coronavirus.

It is trialing swab testing with airport services companies Swissport and Collinson, which Mr Holland-Kaye said could be one way to open riskier routes such as those to the US, where infection rates are high.

In the French capital Paris-Charles De Gaulle and Orly airports are scanning arriving passengers with thermal cameras and offering Covid-19 tests if they record a temperature of more than 38C.

Hong Kong and Vienna airports are also conducting Covid-19 tests on arriving passengers. Greece swabs people arriving in the country selectively based on their answers to a questionnaire.

“We can see how much economic damage has been caused by the length of lockdown we’ve just had,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.

“If you were to say it’s going to be three years before we get a vaccine, we cannot have the equivalent of lockdown for three years . . . We need international connections . . . So we’ve got to have an alternative that will keep the economy working and protect jobs while keeping people safe.” 

Other measures that could become standard for all airports include mandatory mask wearing for travellers and staff, enhanced cleaning, and the provision of hand-sanitising stations, he said.

Mr Holland-Kaye’s comments come as the UK government on Friday relaxed its quarantine rules for travellers arriving in the UK from 75 low-risk countries.

It has introduced a new “traffic light system”, under which people can return from an array of countries without quarantine if they are designated a green or amber country. 

But Mr Holland-Kaye said there was a risk new outbreaks would lead to some countries that are “green or amber” on the government’s list moving to red.

“The job is not done,” he said. “We still have probably about 70 long-haul markets we still can’t get to without quarantine.”

A common international standard would be welcomed by airlines because long-haul routes, such London to New York, are some of the industry’s most profitable and subject to quarantine restrictions.

In the case of London to New York, which represents a big portion of both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s profits, a passenger flying to the US must go into quarantine for two weeks once they return to the UK.

But Mr Holland-Kaye said developing a common standard could take between two to four months because it would require agreements between governments.

“Getting to the point when you can allow individuals from a high-risk country to travel without quarantine is a much bigger challenge than [securing the current air bridge deal]. It is going to take some time and political will to make it happen,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kerin Hope in Athens and David Keohane in Paris