European airports are drawing up industry-wide guidelines on issues such as passenger health screening to ensure a co-ordinated response when travel restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic are eased.
The action comes after London’s Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, faced criticism from passengers for the absence of temperature checks as the UK enters its third week of lockdown in an attempt to contain the disease.
The airport has called for a global standard in passenger health screening for coronavirus as the industry currently takes different approaches based on guidance from their national public health authorities.
In the UK, temperature checks have not been introduced based on advice from Public Health England. The authority believes thermal screening holds little clinical value and would detect only a very small minority of cases, mainly because symptoms of Covid-19 do not usually appear until 5-7 days after exposure to the virus. Instead, all flights to the UK need to provide an early warning by the pilot of any passenger illness to the airport and PHE.
However, other countries such as Italy and China conduct body temperature checks.
ACI Europe, the trade body for airport operators, said it had this week started convening task forces to come up with a set of guidelines looking at addressing health and hygiene issues for when air transport restarts around the world to ensure there was “harmonisation” among airports.
It plans to get these recommendations finalised by May. This will be done in co-ordination with the global airport association, ACI World, to create global guidelines.
But Henk van Klaveren, head of public affairs at the UK-based Airport Operators Association, said it was wrong to “assume that airports with no temperature checks in place are less safe than those that do”.
European governments have begun preparations to relax the lockdowns imposed across much of the continent, with countries such as France, Spain, Belgium and Finland setting up expert committees to examine a gradual easing of stay-at-home orders while avoiding a second wave of infections.
The aviation industry will be a crucial front in this. Flight volumes have plummeted by as much as 90 per cent across Europe following the lockdowns.
Cabin crew unions have also warned about discrepancies in the levels of provision by airlines of personal protective equipment for staff. While many carriers are now providing cabin crew and pilots with masks, often they do not require their crew to wear them, depending on national health authority guidelines. A spokeswoman for British Airways said it provided masks for all its flight crew, but added that it was not mandatory to wear them.
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On Tuesday, Iata, the global trade body for airlines, said a major task for the industry would be to adapt operations and processes to avoid reinfections.
Alexandre de Juniac, Iata director-general, said it was also planning to start talks with governments about what conditions would need to be met in order to start flying safely again. This might include rules on social distancing, safety measures and screening checks in order to reopen closed borders.
“We are not expecting to restart the same industry that we closed a few weeks ago,” said Mr de Juniac. “But the industry processes will need to adapt. We must get on with this work quickly.”