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Heathrow’s COVID-19 response

Olwen Barton MIIRSM - Fire, Health & Safety – Management Systems & Standards Manager at Heathrow

Having handled a record 80.9 million passengers in 2019, Heathrow, like all airports, is now having to adapt in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Passenger numbers declined by 18.3% during Q1 to 14.6 million and were down by around 97% in April. Heathrow’s response to these extraordinary events included the consolidation of facilities, re-organisation of the business, and a programme of work to protect colleagues and passengers from COVID-19.  Heathrow’s commitment to fire, health, safety and wellbeing remains unchanged, and our values are guiding us through these unprecedented times.

Heathrow has always worked very collaboratively with internal and external stakeholders to ensure a smooth and safe passenger journey. The pandemic has only amplified this, making it all the more vital to communicate with a number of teams as we adapt to this fast-moving crisis. This communication helped us to quickly and efficiently consolidate our operations onto a single runway,  shut down construction sites and temporarily relocate all of our airline partners into Terminals 2 and 5 – all within a matter of weeks.

Heathrow’s number one priority since the start of the outbreak has been keeping passengers and colleagues safe.

The risks associated with the consolidation of our operations had to be assessed. The management and maintenance of life safety systems did not change. New processes were developed to track and trace the temporary closure of commercial and retail assets and to assess delivery of critical ongoing maintenance activities. Evacuation management processes were reviewed and revised, and training provided. 

Consolidation and capacity planning considered social distancing requirements for Terminals 2 and 5. A process of terminal familiarisation was agreed for airline and Heathrow colleagues moving from their normal working locations.

Heathrow has closely followed the advice of the Department for Health and Public Health England (PHE), as they set the procedures for all the UK’s ports of entry. The airport has  worked closely with both Government departments to support them as they’ve implemented enhanced monitoring of Heathrow’s inbound passengers.

We stood up ‘First Responders’ from our Airport Fire and Rescue Services to support the measures, and installed isolation facilities for PHE to use.   By the end of February, PHE had established the ‘Heathrow Isolation Centre’ in a local hotel.  The planning that went into safely transferring suspected cases from arriving flights was quite a challenge, but our planning for and experience in dealing with emergency situations paid off.  When shops and restaurants were closed, Heathrow and its retail partners had to shut over 300 outlets safely, and we have also closed many other passenger facilities such as play areas. We also consolidated four terminals into two, because of the dramatic decline in passengers and have had all the safety risks associated with that and making sure those facilities remain safe even though they’re not being used. All this was happening while re-organising our business and furloughing a large number of colleagues.

Adapting our processes

We’ve changed numerous colleague related processes including start of shift briefings, signing in processes and arrangements for colleague travel and breaks.  Colleagues have been provided with PPE, including gloves and face masks.  The use of face masks is currently optional, and their provision was expedited because Heathrow colleagues said they wanted them.   Our colleagues are doing and amazing job keeping the airport open, and it is really important we listen and respond to them. 

Heathrow also stepped up cleaning routines, provided PPE (personal protective equipment) to colleagues, installed additional hand sanitisers, closed non-essential passenger facilities and rolled out new signage to help people socially distance. This has all been done while clearly and frequently communicating these changes with passengers, colleagues, unions, airlines partners and Government

Utilising new technologies

Our airport will soon be trialling new technologies and processes to improve the safety of our passengers and colleagues. These innovations are a step towards reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The package of trials consists of tried and tested processes as well as brand new inventions for our airport environment. Concepts scheduled for review include UV sanitation which would provide a more efficient way of sanitising security trays, facial recognition thermal screening technology to accurately track body temperature as well as contact-free security screening equipment to reduce person-to-person contact. The first trial will be taking place in two weeks and will review the temperature screening technology in our immigration halls. If successful, this will be rolled out to departures, connections and colleague search areas. As one of our values includes sharing what we know, we are hoping to form the basis of a Common International Standard for health screening at all global airports. If the trials are successful and suitable for airports, these new medically grounded processes will restore consumer confidence in flying and will allow us to continue providing the best airport experience in the world.

Getting back to work

Any mandatory training requirements and/or security clearance must be completed ahead of an individual’s return to work.  As many work areas have consolidated, colleagues returning to work may find their workplace has changed.  To address this a Restart Programme is in place, its aim is to ensure Heathrow is ‘recovery safe’ so as and when colleagues return to work, whether this is at the Airport or from home, they do so with the information and instruction they require to work safely.  

We spend huge amounts of time engaging with airlines, colleagues and trade unions, helping them understand what we’re doing, listening to their concerns so we create solutions together. 

As the UK, and countries around the world, wait for the pandemic to subside and for air travel restrictions to be removed – Heathrow has enacted a wide scale change programme which includes ensuring we’re well set for recovery.

Heathrow is ready to work with governments and the international aviation industry to develop measures for rapid health screening of passengers prior to travel in addition to how we can use technology to streamline the passenger journey through the airport, further reducing the need for person-to-person contact. These measures will help provide both colleagues and future passengers peace of mind when flying, but we will need to ensure that there is an international consensus for common measures – so the benefits of global travel can be realised to support the economic and social recovery from COVID-19.