Sunday 7 June 2020 10:00 pm

Exclusive: Heathrow warns of 25,000 job losses amid quarantine travel row

Heathrow Airport’s chief executive has warned that 25,000 jobs may be lost at the airport if the government’s quarantine rules are not relaxed, or air bridges not established, within the next two weeks.

Those losses would largely come from airline redundancies but speaking to City A.M.’s City View podcast, John Holland-Kaye also said a decision on cutting a third of Heathrow’s directly employed workforce (of roughly 7,000) was imminent unless steps are taken to lift the blanket regulations.

He said: “We need the government to move quickly, and in a very cool, coordinated way to, to start to reopen aviation. But at the moment we’re being held back.

Listen to our daily City View podcast as we chart the economic fallout and business impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“76,000 people are employed at Heathrow. That represents one in four households in the local community, so if we start cutting jobs en masse it will have a devastating impact on local communities.

‘There would be 25,000 people out of work. That would be a devastating blow to West London and the Thames Valley”.

Holland-Kaye said he already “cut a third of our operating costs, cut a third of our management, but I’ve held off from cutting front line roles as long as I can,” adding he was “really waiting to see what the government is going to do to reopen borders.”

He said “if we start cutting jobs en masse that has a devastating impact on local communities”. He added: “If I can’t see any prospect of revenue coming in I’ve got to start significantly cutting our people costs, but I want to avoid doing that.”

Read more: Priti Patel lays out details of 14-day quarantine plan

Under the government’s new rules, which were laid out in full by home secretary Priti Patel last week, almost everyone entering England will from tomorrow have to quarantine for 14 days.

The plan has met with outcry from airlines, with British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet having written to ministers criticising the “wholly unjustified and disproportionate” nature of the plan.

Holland-Kaye said the UK needed to “move away from the quarantine idea, where basically nobody flies to something that is a little bit more targeted. 

“In the short term, that is probably having air bridges which allow travel between the UK, and other low risk countries.

“That’s something that the Prime Minister himself has talked about, and where we really need the government to lay out his plans for air bridges very quickly so we can start planning ahead for which countries will be opening up”.

The government has confirmed that air bridges will not be in place initially, but the quarantine policy will be reviewed every three weeks.

In the long-term, Holland-Kaye said, the UK should seek to lead the establishment of a common set of international health screening standards that will allow people to travel freely and safely.

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He added that until the quarantine is lifted, numbers at Heathrow, which have averaged between 5000 and 7000 passengers a day throughout April and May, would remain severely depressed.

Last year Heathrow handled more than 80m passengers, but Holland-Kaye said it would be a “few years” until it reached such numbers again.

“We have a range of forecasts. Demand for aviation is going to come back and people will still want to fly, and so I think we will get back [to 80m passengers] within a few years”, he said.

He warned that the crisis would lead to an economic downturn, but said he did not know how long such a recession will last.

But, Holland-Kaye added, “we have to plan for getting the economy back on its feet and aviation has a vital role to play in that because we are the lifeblood of the UK economy”.

Business travel will be the last piece of the puzzle to return once flying picks up, he predicted, but insisted that new technology such as Zoom would not make it obsolete.

Read more: UK quarantine: Boris Johnson says UK will ‘certainly develop’ air bridges

“I don’t think that using teams and Skype and Zoom will entirely replace business travel”, he said: 

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done by people negotiating export deals. All of our service industries, which the UK is so good at, are done on the ground. A lot of contractors who need to move around and be physically in a particular place. 

“So the demand for that will still be there”, he finished. 

Holland-Kaye also said he had “a lot of sympathy” for British Airways, which has come in for heavy criticism for its use of the government’s furlough scheme while making a huge tranche of its employees redundant.

“BA have said they are burning through £170m every week. That’s a phenomenal amount of money, and they’ve got to take some extreme measures to save themselves. 

Read more: Heathrow calls for border reopening plan as passenger numbers fall 97 per cent

“And in the absence of any revenue, the only thing they can do to buy themselves time is to cut costs. 

“And as I said earlier, no company wants to have to do that. But they’ve got to take the best judgement they can”, he said.

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