Temperature scanners, masks and deep-cleaning: Heathrow boss on future of air travel

1 May 2020, 11:35

The empty concourse at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport
The empty concourse at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Social distancing at airports is "physically impossible", the boss of Heathrow has warned as he explained the steps they will have to take to ensure safe air travel after the coronavirus outbreak.

Chief executive John Holland-Kaye said a "better solution" is needed to make air travel safe as he called for the UK to lead the way in developing a common international standard of measures which could include temperature checks for all passengers.

He told Sky News they were looking at a "package of measures" to allow people to safely fly again.

"If you've flown through China or another Asian country they have these measures in place themselves anyway because they learned their lesson with SARS," he said.

Heathrow airport pictured in Easter 2012 compared to Easter 2020
Heathrow airport pictured in Easter 2012 compared to Easter 2020. Picture: PA

"We will see some kind of health screening as you go into the terminal, maybe a thermal scanner, we will see passengers wearing surgical masks, we will see very good hygiene standards through the airport and that will make sure anyone coming into the airport having the infection is very low, and the risk of transmission is also very low.

" I don’t think we’ll see social distancing in that phase within the airport, the reason for that is that it’s impossible to social distance in any form of public transport.”

In an interview with PA, he continued: "Social distancing does not work in any form of public transport, let alone aviation.

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"The constraint is not about how many people you can fit on a plane, it will be how many people you can get through an airport safely.

"If you've ever been on holiday from Gatwick, you cannot imagine going through there and socially distancing in the summer.

"It's just physically impossible to socially distance with any volume of passengers in an airport."

Social distancing on planes would reduce capacities by more than 50% and mean "prices would shoot up", Mr Holland-Kaye predicted.

EasyJet has suggested it could leave the middle seats on its planes empty when flights resume, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has said it would be "impossible" to do this.

Mr Holland-Kaye set out several alternative "practical" steps which could be implemented to give passengers "confidence that they are safe to fly".

He said: "I think that'll be a package of measures including some form of screening. That might be temperature screening, as you see in Asian airports.

"It will include probably people having less contact with each other, so probably wearing masks when they travel. Less contact between passengers and airport workers.

"It will include fantastic hygiene in the airport, with sanitisers and deep cleaning and things like that.

"I think that package of measures - once we have got the disease under control - will be enough to get people flying again."

Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary declared "We can keep people safe" as he gave his support to temperature checks.

"What we will have to do, though, when we do return, will be temperature checks at people entering airport terminals and train stations," he told the BBC.

"Anybody with a temperature of over 38 degrees will be refused entry.

"And, on board, we will have face coverings or face masks for passengers, for cabin crew.

"We are disinfecting every aircraft every night.

"So, yes, I think we can keep people safe."

The number of passengers travelling through Heathrow last month was down by around 97% compared with April 2019.

The west London airport expects passenger demand will "remain weak" until governments around the world "deem it safe to lift travel restrictions".

It recorded an 18.3% year-on-year decline in demand to 14.6 million passengers between January and March, while earnings before tax and interest fell by 22.4% to £315 million.

The airport insisted its financial position is "robust", with £3.2 billion in liquidity, which is "sufficient to maintain the business at least over the next 12 months, even with no passengers".