Heathrow boss: airport queues will persist until Covid checks are automated

John Holland-Kaye says travel will not resume fully until all health checks are scrapped

Passengers queue to check in at Heathrow Airport, where passenger numbers slumped because of Covid-19. AP

Air travellers will continue to face delays until there are standardised coronavirus checks that can be carried out automatically, Heathrow Airport's chief executive said.

John Holland-Kaye said Heathrow, the busiest airport in the UK, did not have the space or staff to inspect people’s health certificates manually without queues forming.

Some checks do take place automatically at Heathrow’s e-gates, which were adapted to call up passenger locator forms when they scan passports.

But the gates are available only to passengers from certain countries, and have suffered glitches that caused further delays.

Speaking at the World Aviation Festival in London, Mr Holland-Kaye called on governments to come together and agree on standard checks.

International travel will ultimately not return to its pre-pandemic norm until all virus-related checks are abolished, he said.

“We’ve suddenly had to adapt to having lots of manual interventions, where we can’t use technology and we just don’t have enough people who can manage it,” he said. “We don’t have enough space for people to queue.

“That is causing a real issue in check-in, at all airports all around the world. And until we can start to standardise some of this and automate it, we’re not going to be able to unblock that.”

The UK government tightened rules for England on Tuesday because of the spread of the Omicron variant, meaning people arriving at Heathrow and other airports must isolate until they get a PCR test result.

The ruling comes after nearly two years of travel restrictions that caused Heathrow’s passenger numbers to drop from 81 million in 2019 to a projected 21 million this year.

Virgin Atlantic and British Airways planes marked the resumption of transatlantic travel with synchronised departures from Heathrow last month. PA

Air industry bosses have generally expressed cautious optimism that the variant will not lead to a return of blanket travel restrictions.

But there is no harmony even among EU countries, with popular destinations such as Spain, Italy and France each imposing different rules for passengers.

“Until we get back to a world where there are no pre-departure tests, no post-arrival tests, no lengthy and complicated passenger locator forms you have to fill out, we’re not going to get back to travel as we knew it,” the Heathrow chief said.

“So whenever I speak to the UK and other governments, that has to be the goal that we aim for, getting back to frictionless travel.”

Passengers arriving in the UK must complete a locator form which, in some cases, can be checked by an e-gate when it scans the associated passport.

People from the UK and approved countries, such as the US, Australia and EU members, can use the gates if they have a biometric passport.

A Home Office spokesman said people would not notice their locator form being scanned unless it is missing or raises a concern.

Ian Stamatakis-Brown of Vision Box, which manufactures e-gates, said this might happen if the passengers’ answers on the form indicated they had been in contact with positive cases.

He said the e-gate checks had been in place across the UK since October.

Mr Holland-Kaye said the seamless checks were the reason why some passengers might feel like their Covid documents were not being inspected.

“When you come back into the country, if you’ve done it all properly, you can just scan your passport at an e-gate and go on your way,” he said.

“A lot of people say: ‘I had lots of checks when I went into South Africa but no checks at Heathrow! It’s a scandal!’

“No it’s not, it’s brilliant. This is exactly what we should be doing. The technology is working, the checks are happening but it’s been automated.”

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 2:57 PM