Social Distancing Is Impossible in Airports, Heathrow Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- Social distancing will not work in airports, and governments will have to agree international standards before passengers are confident enough to travel, Heathrow Airport Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

Passenger numbers at Europe’s busiest airport plunged about 97% in April from a year earlier and will remain weak until travel restrictions are lifted. Many carriers face bankruptcy or nationalization if the industry can’t get back to normal before a vaccine arrives, Holland-Kaye said, adding that the airport’s shareholders are burning through 200 million pounds a month ($250 million) at present.

“Social distancing just cannot work in any transportation system,” the CEO said. “I was out in the terminals yesterday looking at the social distancing we have in place with just a few thousand passengers a day, and already it’s hard to manage. So it’s impossible to have social distancing in an airport, let alone on the plane.”

His comments came as the GMB, a trade union that represents airport workers, criticized safety measures at the airport, saying workers fear they’ll contract the disease from passengers returning from overseas. In the past two weeks, three members of the union working at Heathrow have died while suffering from coronavirus, the union said in a statement on Friday. The airport did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Aviation is expected to take longer to recover from the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, which is leading firms to cut costs as quickly as they can. British Airways may slash as many as 12,000 workers while Irish airline Ryanair Holdings Plc says it will cut 3,000 jobs.

The airport’s rate of cash burn is “not sustainable for the long term,” Holland-Kaye said. “We’ll have to cut very deep, which means lots of job losses, if we have to wait 12 months” for travel to get back to normal.

In the future, passengers will probably have a thermal check when they enter the airport so that only low-risk people are traveling, he said. Other changes may include people having to wear masks, protective screens to separate airport workers from passengers and more automated services so that there’s less interaction between people.

Other comments from Holland-Kaye:

  • On consolidation in airlines: “Many of the airlines you would want to consolidate also don’t have the capital to do that” and if they have to wait until a vaccine arrives “most of them will be out of business by then.”
  • On perceived lack of U.K. government support for the industry: “We are the enabler of every other economic sector in the country” and “unless we can get those flights up and running again quickly, the whole U.K. economy will be stuttering along in second gear.”

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