May 11, 2020

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Coronavirus in the aviation sector

Coronavirus: ‘Safety is going to help the recovery of the aviation sector’

SHP talks to Amanda Owen, Safety, Health and Wellbeing Director at Heathrow Airport to learn about some of the practical and innovative solutions being implemented to eliminate and reduce risks, and to ensure passengers feel confident to fly again when the current coronavirus controls are lifted.

If you happen to live under a flight path, the impact of coronavirus on in the aviation sector is pretty obvious. I caught up with Heathrow Airport’s Safety, Health and Wellbeing Director, Amanda Owen over video call, to find out how her day-to-day role has changed and what the aviation sector is doing to prepare to get the country back in the air.

“At Heathrow we are working at considerable pace to respond to COVID-19 to ensure our colleagues and passengers are safe. We’re doing enormous amounts of work, but are by no means finished yet,” Amanda opened.

“Safety is going to help the recovery of the aviation sector; it will transform our industry. We’re in the ‘now’, and we’re planning for the ‘near’. We’re engaging with governments, stakeholders, technology and I believe the ‘next’, is going to look very different. The aviation industry is so critical to the economy generally and it will be even more mission critical in rebuilding Britain’s economy in the recovery phase, which presents a huge challenge for the people within it.”

Coronavirus: Heathrow response

Whilst the global pandemic wasn’t declared until 11 March, Amanda explains that Heathrow’s response started as early as January. At the start of the outbreak in China, Public Health England (PHE) enhanced monitoring at Heathrow, including tracing and tracking of suspected cases. ‘First Responders’ from the Airport Fire and Rescue Services were stood up to support the measures, and installed isolation facilities for PHE to use. The airport also stepped up its cleaning arrangements and installed over 600 hand sanitiser units across Heathrow, as well as signage regarding hand hygiene. By 25 February, PHE had established the ‘Heathrow Isolation Centre’ in a local hotel. The planning that went into safely transferring suspected cases from arriving flights was quite a challenge, but our planning for and experience in dealing with emergency situations paid off.

* Since conducting this interview, the airport has announced that is utilising ultraviolet cleaning robots to continuously disinfect moving handrails, and coating surfaces such as security trays, lift buttons and trolley handles with a material providing long-lasting anti-viral protection, to encourage passengers to return to air travel.

By 11 March, when the pandemic was declared, Heathrow had already implemented contingency parking arrangements for aircraft. From 12 March onwards the airport was responding to almost daily announcements from the Government about action required by businesses and the public: isolating if symptomatic; living with a symptomatic household member, pregnant, over 70 or ‘high risk’ because of an underlying health condition. Schools were shut on 20 March, and whilst Heathrow colleagues were determined as key workers, some had difficulty securing the school places they needed. When shops and restaurants were closed, Heathrow and its retail partners had to shut over 300 outlets safely, and also closed many other passenger facilities, such as play areas.

Across the terminals the airport implemented a range of social distancing measures: additional queue mazes, floor signage, signage on monoliths inside and outside terminals and public announcements, Perspex screens at close contact points such as check-in desks, security search areas and immigration. It changed numerous colleague-related processes, including start of shift briefings, signing in processes and arrangements for colleague travel and breaks. Staff were also provided with PPE, including gloves and face masks. The use of face masks is currently optional, and their provision was expedited because Heathrow colleagues said they wanted them. “Our colleagues are doing and amazing job keeping the airport open, and it is really important we listen and respond to them. We have always had a good working relationship with our Trade Unions on safety matters, and they have been exceptionally supportive during this time – in fact, two of our Trade Union Task Force formed part of our planning and response right from the start,” said Amanda.

“We’ve also consolidated four terminals into two, because of the dramatic decline in passengers and have had all the safety risks associated with that and making sure those facilities remain safe even though they’re not being used. All while re-organising our business and furloughing a large number of colleagues.”

“We are committed to the wellbeing of our colleagues, and supporting colleagues is more important than ever. It is a tough time in aviation and the recovery is likely to take some time. Like all businesses, Heathrow is having to take difficult decisions regarding pay cuts, job losses and furloughing colleagues. Whilst the company is committed to retaining as many jobs as possible, the reality is some job cuts will be inevitable. It is an uncertain time for many people combined with the constraints of lockdown, working from home or not (if furloughed), with the challenges of home schooling and worry about loved ones.

“To support colleagues, we’ve promoted and seen an uplift in the use of our existing health services. Both our EAP and online GP services have seen a surge in usage in the last quarter. We’ve also innovated other products. Access to our StrAW (Sustaining Resilience at Work) buddies is now available virtually. StRaW buddies are available to listen, offer guidance and recommend how to get professional help if appropriate. Training is being adapted to on-line versions and we’ve set up a social site and network that colleagues can use to connect to others whilst they are isolating and have establish support for financial hardship cases.”


Amanda has been a health and safety practitioner for 25 years and acknowledged that she is still learning from the challenges presented by the coronavirus. She’s certainly not alone in that particular boat. It was on a discussion about public perception that she said: “You never stop learning, do you? I had no knowledge of coronavirus less than four months ago, not many people did. I’ve found myself reverting to what I was taught when I did my diploma. Which was fascinating. I found myself organising my thoughts and the thoughts for Heathrow around the Eric Prevents Death Hierarchy of Controls.

“Actually, the fact that the most effective control in terms of elimination, is really not within our gift to do. It’s a virus and only a vaccine or treatment that prevents the most severe symptoms will eliminate the risk. So we have focused on reducing, innovating and controlling what we can, along with the provision of PPE. So, what’s been interesting for me is the difference between the actual and perceived value in certain controls. I’ve become much more attuned to the responding to the perceptions; the concern and the fear that people have.

“I think this is where the government finds itself now with the question about face masks. In that it’s a very visible thing isn’t it, a very practical thing If you do it, you can feel like you’ve got some control. There’s some limited value in terms of stopping the spread if you’ve got it, but not stopping you catching it unless they’re medical grade masks and no medical body (WHO, PHE) are recommending the use of those masks outside of medical environments. .”

The public perception conversation started, because Amanda felt that the aviation sector, or rather the people working hard in very challenging circumstances, aren’t necessarily getting the credit they deserve. The key workers keeping one of the world’s busiest airports open, on skeleton staff, might not immediately spring to mind when striking saucepans with utensils on your doorstep on a Thursday evening.

“It’s absolutely right that key workers are being applauded for saving lives, keeping the country open and operating and food on our shelves,” Amanda said. “I wish our colleagues were considered in the same light”. With the repatriation of British citizens stranded abroad and the vital PPE supplies arriving on huge freight aircraft, it’s vital that transport hubs like Heathrow Airport remain open. There’s a little bit of positivity about that, but mainly negative because of the view that Heathrow is letting in infected people.”

“At the end of the day we’re the UK’s biggest airport, the biggest hub, and we have to stay open to ensure Britons stranded abroad can get home on repatriation flights and vital PPE can continue to come into the UK on our cargo services. We will stay open. And we will recover.” Sadly though, Amanda recognised, some airports will struggle to get back on their feet. Exeter airport for instance, has been particularly badly hit by the collapse of Flybe, one of the first corporate casualties of coronavirus.

Many have criticised that the airport is even open, but it is following all government advice. The UK Government has not closed the borders and views temperature checks as ineffective for stopping the spread of the virus. At the end of April, the Daily Mail reported that Heathrow Chief executive John Holland-Kaye had written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to demand that the scientific data backing up decision not to implement temperature checks was released to help restore public confidence in the policy. In a separate interview, John Holland-Kaye told the BBC that it was ‘physically impossible’ to introduce social distancing at airports. He said a “better solution” is needed to make air travel safe. “The constraint is not about how many people you can fit on a plane, it will be how many people you can get through an airport safely.” Heathrow has urged the UK Government to take a lead in setting up a Common International Standard for health screening going forward so that passengers can have a consistent and effective experience when travelling.

* Since conducting this interview, it has been announced that the UK is to bring in 14-day quarantine. for air passengers. Passengers arriving at Heathrow may soon be able to take a coronavirus test to avoid quarantine. Currently, the government has exempted travellers arriving from 60 nations from the need to self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days.

 The new norm

As part of her new ‘norm’, Amanda is working mainly from home on conference calls for most of the day. She now takes part in regular calls with the World Economic Forum to discuss how to restart the economy, and what part the aviation sector plays in that. Amanda is on hand to provide insight into what Heathrow is up to operationally and, taking part in discussions surrounding the needs of the airport from governments and organisations around the world, in order to restart the aviation industry.

“Our focus now is on building confidence,” Amanda continued. “Confidence of passengers to fly, airlines to operate out of Heathrow, and our colleagues to come to work. How we combat that will be a combination of how we manage the risks themselves of course. Reducing them as far as we can. And that’s where we need collaboration internationally.”

Heathrow is working with many bodies, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFTA), Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the international industry bodies to come up with common and consistent standards to enable the reopening of ‘safe routes’ through certain countries to others.

There is enormous appetite for collaboration across the industry and a general consensus that in the absence of a vaccine or substantial treatment, the industry will need to adopt a basket of measures to reduce the risk as far as possible and build confidence. Medical declaration and contract tracing processes; health and temperature screening, COVID testing, ‘contactless journeys’ the use of PPE, and cleaning and sanitising of equipment and aircraft are all potential components of a basket of measures that could come into effect. Heathrow is playing a leading role in pushing for measures to be introduced that will be medically effective, that will gain support from passengers and which can be practically implemented.

When asked whether the role of the safety professional had changed because of the crisis, Amanda’s response was, “no, not fundamentally. Our role is to support and enable the business to understand risks and identify the best controls available to control those risks – the same applies currently though our role is more important than ever, and I think that is recognised.

“What’s different is that it’s really accelerating safety professionals’ need to be even more collaborative and focus on communication. Engaging and assuring people through communication and engagement is very, very important at the moment. So, I’m spending huge amounts of my time on calls with airlines and colleagues and trade unions, helping them understand what we’re doing, listening to their concerns and engaging them with what we’re planning so we create solutions together.”

Looking forward

As a final reflection, Amanda referred to a recent WEF call where McKinsey’s Global Managing Partner, Kevin Sneader, was asked for his views on how COVID-19 and whether it would change business. “The final point he made, was that he hoped businesses would benefit from how they have had to adapt to the crisis”. Firms have head to adjust to making decisions quickly, assisting the migration of staff to working from home and working agilely, and embracing technology.

Also leading Heathrow’s ‘Healthy Return to Work’ programme, Amanda is not designing for the ‘old’ normal ways of working. “Post crisis we need to amplify the things we’ve been required to do that have worked, like agile working and decision making at pace, and end or let go of the things that are not fit for purpose in the ‘new’ normal. One of my team recently reflected on the value of us meeting every day now, albeit for only 15 or 30 minutes. When we all worked in the office, we didn’t do that – seems incredible now’.”

Amanda is clearly very proud of Heathrow, and her team. “Heathrow has moved mountains in the last four months because our amazing colleagues have stepped up to the mark, brought their pride, knowledge, experience and adaptability to keeping the airport open safety in very uncertain and challenging times.”

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