Virtual queues and wet wipes: what Heathrow and BA are serving up

Covid marshals will be on hand to help passengers when international travel restarts on Monday

Virtual queueing, Covid marshals and thousands of Dettol wipes are among measures unveiled by British Airways and Heathrow to restore passenger confidence ahead of the restart of international leisure travel from England on Monday.

Only a few thousand more passengers are expected at Britain’s biggest airport on 17 May, when holidays are permitted but quarantine restrictions lifted on just a handful of destinations on the government’s green list.

Non-travelling friends and family will be discouraged – or at peak times, barred – from the terminals as the airport seeks to maintain an element of social distancing.

Covid marshals in pink tabards will be on hand to provide assistance, although Heathrow’s service director, Liz Heggarty, said it would be impossible to enforce distancing. But, she added, with current international entry requirements: “Everyone flying will need to have taken a test. So we can be pretty confident in the safety of the airport environment.”

Face masks will remain obligatory, and 3,000 litres of sanitiser and 10,000 Dettol wipes will be available in Terminal 5, where most BA flights depart. The lavatories are now deep-cleaned with ultra-violet light using £50,000 robots.

BA has also introduced virtual queueing systems for check-in in Terminal 5, and is trialling a similar system at the boarding gate, to minimise physical queues. Passengers can scan a QR code in the terminal and be called by phone to the automated check-in area when they are at the front of the queue. Buffets have been removed from airline lounges and customers will be served at their seats, ordering via phone if possible.

For some destinations, customers can upload test results and vaccine certification to the airline website for clearance by a BA office team. The airline offers pre-booked tests to return, which passengers can pack on departure and complete via a Zoom call with the test provider, Qured, near the end of their trip.

BA is also trialling a 25-second antigen test for Covid-19, which its makers say provides “PCR-like accuracy”.

Sean Doyle, chief executive, said the test, being trialled among BA crew alongside PCR tests, would be a “gamechanger” for travel if approved by governments.

On board, BA passengers in short-haul economy will now, post-Covid, be given water and a snack again, after free food was axed in costcutting measures in 2018. Paid-for meals can be pre-ordered but no longer bought from the trolley.

Dr Mike Harrison, head of BA’s health service, said the airline had been audited by the CAA to comply with all UN recommendations for Covid. He said the air flow, exchange and filtering onboard was far better than most buildings: “That combination means that the cabin is very low-risk.”

Capt Al Bridger, BA director of flight operations, said no aircraft had been entirely out of service during the pandemic, and every pilot had flown at least once every 35 days on top of simulator training. “We’re not actually returning to flying – our operations continued and pilots kept on flying, and the aircraft have rotated through the operation.”

Heathrow forecasts an uplift from 8,000 to 13,300 departing passengers daily to 13,300 on 17 May, still just about 12% of pre-pandemic levels.

John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow, said he was still hopeful that the lucrative transatlantic corridor could be reopened to allow UK-US flights within weeks, adding that the British government was now supportive. However, the White House has yet to rescind the executive order signed at the beginning of the pandemic, banning visitors from Europe.


Gwyn Topham

The GuardianTramp

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