EDITORIAL: Shameful Crowd Scenes At Heathrow Will Hurt The Whole Aviation Industry

Credit: Peter Westmacott/Twitter

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Sadly, a picture tweeted Friday from Heathrow Airport could cost the air transport industry far more dearly.

The tweet, posted by @PeterWestmacott and apparently from Heathrow’s Terminal 2 UK Border Control on Jan. 22, shows a throng of incoming travelers packed into the customs and immigration hall. There’s no social distancing and some people are not wearing their mask correctly, exposing noses. Heaven knows how long those people have had to wait in those conditions.

This occurred on the same day that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there was evidence suggesting the new strain of the COVID-19 coronavirus that has hit the UK, prompting a second major national lockdown, is potentially more deadly.

While incoming travelers to the UK are required to have had negative COVID tests and to comply with quarantines, there is no such thing as a 100% accurate test. A test result is also just about a point in time—that point when the test was conducted. A so-called “gold standard” PCR test is a very good indicator that someone is not infected, but it’s not—and likely never can be—perfect. And COVID safety, as anyone not living on Mars since 2019 surely knows, is a multilayered process that includes mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. Judging by the photo, Heathrow has no social distancing protocols.

After disembarking from their HEPA filtered cabins—another good protection layer that modern airliners provide—these passengers arriving at Heathrow would have had no option but to join this windowless, airless, crowded mass until they passed through customs and immigration (typically a nightmare process at the best of times at Heathrow). You can’t turn back and reboard the plane. You can’t avoid immigration and stride through an alternative entry into the country.

What this image does is reinforce the views of all those people—still the vast majority—who feel is it not yet safe to fly, especially on long-haul, international routes, those most severely damaged by the pandemic. They will look at this picture and not care a fig about airline assurances of onboard safety; it counts for nothing if immediately after your flight, you have to pack into a crowded immigration hall. All those people who were weighing up a potential return to international flying this year will say, “2022, maybe.”

Heathrow and UK border and customs have a lot to answer for here. So does Johnson and the UK government, which has done precious little to support aviation through the pandemic and has now damaged the industry even further.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


Karen yes just like the storming of the US Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021 there are still very deep societal problems that need to be fixed before anyone will will safe on long-haul
On a local level, I was waved forwared to stand alongside a person at a counter (they are behind shield!)

We have spacing marks all the way through the store and ......

Covidiots just do not get it. Why would it be better at an Airport? Doomed I say, doomed (unless and until the Vaccine is world wide)
Shameful? Really? I'm convinced the airline industry must be determined to commit suicide. After a year of catastrophic losses and a decimated industry, everyone should be elated that there is a crowd in the airport. We can only wish this scene would be repeated at every airport worldwide all day, every day. The problem is that many of the wounds the industry has experienced are self inflicted. Clearly the demand is out there, but the ridiculous restrictions imposed by most countries has prevented most from traveling. Even when one does travel, the mask-Nazis at airports and onboard have made travel a most unpleasant experience. But it is obvious that quite a few in the industry prefer self-flagellation rather than a return to normal travel.
I've been through that line many times. Just looks like a normal arrival process into the UK.
Should it be better; sure.
But what I see in that picture is just 'business as usual.'