UK airports brace for months of uncertainty

27 Mar 2020 by Jenni Reid
A woman wears a mask at Heathrow. Credit: Elena Graham/Shutterstock

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing international travel to a halt.

As we head into spring, usually a time when the UK’s airports are preparing for a rise in passenger numbers and the launch of airlines’ summer schedules, they are instead working out how to run facilities that will be almost empty.

The UK government has advised against all non-essential overseas travel, and airlines around the world have announced huge capacity cuts for the coming months, yet hundreds of thousands of Britons are struggling to return home, obeying a different government edict to return home while they are still able.

One airport – the small Carlisle Lake District Airport in the north of England – is stopping all operations from March 27, when its flights to London Southend, Belfast City and Dublin will all be suspended.

London City, the central airport favoured by business travellers, is closing to all flights from March 25 until the end of April.

London City Airport to suspend all commercial and private flights

Other airports will remain open but significantly reduce staff numbers, catering options and public spaces.

Thousands of members of staff face being asked to take unpaid leave or short- or long-term redundancy.

Manchester Airport is consolidating all operations into one of its three terminals, with all flights departing from and arriving into Terminal 1 from Wednesday March 25. Some F&B outlets will remain open, but the number will be reduced in accordance with demand.

London Gatwick is to close its North Terminal, Sky News reports, though is not currently due to shut down entirely.

Heathrow told Business Traveller it is taking “the necessary steps to reorganise our operation and remain open throughout this crisis.” 

This includes the potential closure of some infrastructure, such as certain terminal zones and satellite buildings, though no areas have yet been closed.

Luton Airport has closed its long- and medium-term car parks and will be closing parts of its terminal building. Almost all cafes, restaurants and bars have closed, and those that remain open are offering takeaway only.

Edinburgh Airport is implementing a partial shutdown, the Scotsman reports, as it predicts a “period of zero or close to zero passenger demand.”

Its south east and west piers will be shut off, representing 12 of its 31 departure gates. Meanwhile one of two immigration halls will be closed, as well as all but four of its 28 shops, cafes and bars.

Bristol Airport says it is “scaling back facilities” in its terminal, including a reduction in the opening hours of catering and retail outlets.

Meanwhile Cornwall Airport is only operating “lifeline flights” to the Isles of Scilly.

How are airports protecting travellers?

UK airports are following the guidance set by Public Health England regarding passenger safety.

These do not go as far as the measures being introduced in some other countries, such as temperature checks and screening passengers for coronavirus symptoms.

There is also no general ban on tourists or restrictions on arrivals from certain countries.

PHE works to the advice that most people who develop symptoms will get them after leaving the airport, and that clinical entry screening such as temperature checks would detect only a small minority of cases.

Instead, airports are being asked to reinforce messaging around the importance of avoiding contact with anyone exhibiting coronavirus symptoms and hand washing.

All aircraft arriving into the UK should provide an announcement to passengers with health advice, health information should be displayed prominently in the airport and give leaflets in multiple languages should be available.

Flight crews are being asked to perform “enhanced monitoring” of flights from affected locations and ensure passengers are informed of what they should do if they do exhibit symptoms.

PHE does not recommend airport staff wear face masks, instead urging everyone to wash their hands with soap regularly.

Heathrow says it has put in place 450 new hand sanitiser dispensers across the airport and increasing cleaning procedures.

It has also created a dedicated, isolated terminal pier area to be used by medical professionals while liaising with suspected cases, and is providing the Airport Fire Service with additional Personal Protection Equipment and training in case they are required to act as first responders to suspected cases.

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