When it comes to enabling safe air travel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no simple or easy answers, says Amanda Owen, safety, health and wellbeing director at Heathrow.
What there is, though, is the reassurance of returning to the fundamental tenets of risk management; the principles that would-be health and safety professionals are introduced to in week one of their studies.
'What has been enduring is the hierarchy of control,' confirms Amanda. 'I actually surprised myself right at the beginning of the pandemic when I was presenting to the Board and I returned to ERICPD [the risk assessment model]! From a health and safety perspective, the first thing we look to do is eliminate. We can’t eliminate the COVID risk – only a vaccine can do that – so to enable our colleagues to work safely and passengers to travel safely we have to put in measures to manage the COVID risk.'
'Rather than wait for a [government] decision, we wanted to be ready to go...so we've proceeded at our own risk'
With this in mind, Heathrow is ready to trial an industry-leading testing facility that Amanda hopes will change passengers’ experience of air travel during the pandemic.
'This is an entirely new context; no one has ever worked through something like this before,' she says. 'Testing is not a silver bullet, but we believe it’s part of the way forward.'
Ahead of the game
The aviation industry has been devastated by the pandemic. In a typical August, Heathrow would see 200,000 passengers passing through every day; currently, the figure is around 50,000 a day. For passengers, the restrictions around international travel are changing daily: quarantines are introduced and lifted with little warning, and some countries have completely closed borders. Since the start of the pandemic, Amanda has co-sponsored Heathrow’s response, in the form of the airport’s 'Safe to Fly' programme. The programme has six strands, one of which is health screening.
'We want to find a way of ensuring people can fly safely,' Amanda explains, 'and we think testing on departure and arrival, and with consistent international standards, is the way forward.'
Working in partnership with firms Collinson and Swissport, Heathrow has established a COVID testing facility in Terminal 2 that is ready to pilot passenger testing.
Heathrow’s proposal is to offer passengers testing on arrival initially, in order to prove the science, but Amanda foresees testing on both departure and arrival being the ideal scenario should testing in airports become the norm. Heathrow will offer the PCR [polymerise chain reaction] COVID test, which is considered the “gold standard” and is the same one offered by the NHS.
As well as a test on arrival, Heathrow expects that passengers will be provided with another test 'some days later'. There is some debate about the best interval to re-test – it could be five or eight days after arrival – but the aim is to reduce the length of quarantine required from countries not on safe lists.
'The government is thinking about testing and travel, and conversations around testing have been going on for a couple of months now,' explains Amanda. 'Rather than wait for a decision, we wanted to be ready to go if and when the government says "yes". So we’ve proceeded at our own risk.'
Making the testing facility secure and welcoming has been an absolute priority: 'We wanted it to feel very clean and safe – like a medical centre,' Amanda confirms.
There is a one-way route through the facility, which has 12 testing booths with the ability to increase space if volume demands. Passengers will pre-book their tests online, so staff can anticipate and manage demand. The whole facility, including the waiting area, is designed to ensure passengers follow social distancing guidelines. The nursing staff on hand to assist passengers in taking the swab-based test will be wearing full PPE.
Everyone in the facility is required to wear a face covering – as is the case throughout Heathrow’s terminals – and there will be enhanced cleaning regimes: booths will be cleaned after every passenger test. The test itself is quick – the processing time for a passenger is around six minutes – so turnaround will be fairly rapid.
'we are doing everything we can to open the skies safely'
With government support, the pilot of the new testing procedure could be available as a private service to anyone with a flight landing in Heathrow Terminal 2, and within a few weeks to those arriving in Terminal 5.
'When it comes to testing, at Heathrow we are truly leading the way,' says Amanda. 'As we ready ourselves to conduct arrivals testing, we have just trialled three different types of ‘rapid point-of-care tests’, which are very new. PCR tests are processed in a lab, so the results can take anything from six hours to a couple of days, but these new rapid tests can give an instant result.
'We don’t know for sure if any of these will be the solution, but we know the government and key stakeholders are considering the role of testing in safe air travel, so if we don’t contribute to the debate about the role of testing, we would be far behind.'
Opening the skies
While recent months have brought much grim news for the travel industry, Amanda is cautiously optimistic about the ability of the aviation industry to find answers to the many challenges it faces and to bounce back.
'Things are changing rapidly,' she notes. 'Air travel will come back; it’s a question of making it safe to fly and making people feel confident to fly. I’m privileged to work in an organisation where the executives and the board are fully supporting our efforts.
'Testing could help us: there are no guarantees but I’m really proud of our work. We’re creating solutions, and hopefully they will play their part.'
Of course, if COVID has taught us one thing, it’s that countries can’t succeed in tackling the virus alone. From limiting its spread geographically to developing and testing a vaccine, organisations must think internationally. Nowhere is this truer than in aviation, where there will need to be reciprocal arrangements and recognised standards if testing is to be successful in easing movement across borders. Here, Amanda is hopeful.
'Talking with other countries and airlines and so on, I would say COVID has united the aviation industry in its efforts to enable safe flying. At Heathrow we are sharing everything we know: the level of collaboration is unprecedented, and it may result in bilateral agreements on testing regimes or, even better, common international standards.
'More than ever before, people want certainty, clarity and confidence. There are tough times ahead, but we are doing everything we can to open the skies safely.'
Further information about Heathrow’s Fly Safe measures can be found here.