Heathrow Says Covid Tests Needed for Years Even With Vaccine

Airline passengers will need to take Covid-19 tests before flying long after a vaccine for the viral infection is introduced, according to the head of the airport that was Europe’s busiest before the pandemic struck.

The time required for a global vaccine roll-out means testing must go hand-in-hand with inoculation if international travel is to return to meaningful levels, Heathrow airport Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said in an interview Wednesday.

“Even with the U.K. getting early access to a vaccine it’ll take a year and a half to vaccinate the entire country,” Holland-Kaye told Bloomberg TV. “It’s going to take much longer before even the fastest vaccine can really have a massive impact around the world.”

Entry Restrictions

International flights have barely revived from groundings earlier this year as countries impose travel curbs to stem fresh outbreaks of the coronavirus. While Pfizer Inc.’s announcement of a vaccine that appears to prevent 90% of infections buoyed airline stocks, it’s not clear how air-transport regulators will respond and how quickly the breakthrough will benefit the industry.

The current imperative is to quickly introduce Covid-19 tests for people arriving in the U.K. from high-risk areas in order to slash quarantine periods that are putting almost all potential customers off flying, Holland-Kaye said.

Later, pre-departure tests should see people screened 72 hours before flying and again on landing, potentially obviating the need for self-isolation, the CEO said. Testing could ultimately be eased as countries get the disease under control, aided by a vaccine, though it may take “a number of years to get to that point.”

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday that a task force is making good progress toward a plan for testing on arrival, which will be introduced once the current national clampdown is eased, though he didn’t specify when.

Heathrow has been Europe’s busiest airport for years, though Paris Charles De Gaulle overtook it in the first nine months after U.K. quarantines introduced to fight the virus hammered air traffic.

The London hub’s passenger tally was down 82% last month compared with a year earlier, it reported Wednesday, with the normally lucrative North American market slumping 95%.

Job Cuts

Holland-Kaye said he expects business to pick up in December once Britain ends its lockdown and introduces basic at-airport testing, though further job losses are likely on top of a 30% cut in management. He said Heathrow still aims to avert redundancies among front line staff in negotiations with unions.

Holland-Kaye said talks between Britain and the U.S. on a London-New York travel corridor that would effectively reopen the market for the first time in months have made progress but hit a “pause” due to the presidential election.

A pilot program that’s been under discussion with airlines won’t now be introduced in time for Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, but should be up and running by Christmas, he said, forming a template for other intercontinental markets worldwide.

Virgin, JetBlue

Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. CEO Shai Weiss said separately Wednesday in a CAPA-Centre for Aviation webinar that he’s hopeful a new U.S. administration will accelerate a return to more normalized operations.

“We want to see more cooperation to open the borders of the United States to non-U.S. citizens,” he said. “We’re calling on the U.K., New York and the U.S. more broadly to act now.”

JetBlue Airways Corp. chief Robin Hayes meanwhile told a World Travel Market event that the U.S. carrier is on track to launch London flights in the third quarter of next year, predicting “tremendous pent-up demand” by then. Hayes said airlines should cooperate with hotels and tourist attractions to develop a joint approach to pre-flight testing.

“The secret sauce is how we can create something we could all use,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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