Behind the Scenes

at London Heathrow Airport with United Airlines

Our own Gray Dawes Group Marketing Director, John Cooper, was recently invited by United Airlines and Heathrow Airport to take a look – first hand – at the various measures being put in place for the safety of travellers.

What John discovered were a range of innovations and practices which, in his opinion, make taking a flight the safest place to be!

It’s good to be back…

Like most business travellers, the last time I was on a plane was way back in March, before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold and changed life as we know it. So, when United Airlines invited me over to Heathrow to check out what they and the world’s busiest airport are doing to keep those who are travelling safe, I jumped at the chance. Even though I wouldn’t actually be flying anywhere, being back in those familiar airport surroundings, escaping the four walls of my home office for a morning and having actual human contact with business travel colleagues, whom I could talk to in real life (and not in a small window on my computer screen), was too good an opportunity to miss.

On a wet and chilly Autumn morning, there was something strange about the drive to Heathrow’s Terminal 2. This was a journey I’d made so many times before, but today there was something different. Traffic. Or rather, the total lack of it. There were no delays on the motorway, no queues in the tunnel and finding a space in the short stay carpark was a breeze.

As the digital billboard greeted my arrival at Terminal 2, accompanied by the now obligatory image of a smiling face-masked person, Heathrow’s message to me was spot on. It has been a while. And I’ve missed you, too!

Heathrow has never been cleaner…

Before actually stepping in to the terminal building, the level of cleanliness is quite striking. The whole place is spotless. It’s pretty evident, even without the ‘COVID CLEAN’ stickers on all the lift buttons and monitor surfaces, that Heathrow is going all out to make the airport as safe as possible. The addition of physical measures, such as perspex divider screens at all the checkin desks, social distancing barriers, hand sanitiser stations and the highly visible ‘Heathrow Hygiene Technicians’ are complimented by new protocols.

From the start, friendly marshals are ready at the terminal entrance, checking where you’re travelling to and politely advising that it’s ‘passengers only’ who are allowed inside. As Heathrow’s Business Change Lead, Jenna Christie, explains:

“Heathrow has never been cleaner. We conduct regular and massive deep cleans of the entire airport and have been trialling many different innovations, including UV wands and electrostatic cleaning as well as introducing our own trained Covid Marshalls to gently ensure passengers adhere to social distancing and, of course, wearing their face masks, which is mandatory throughout the airport.”

Here to stay…

Maintaining social distancing during my visit to Heathrow wasn’t a problem. For all the impressive safety measures the airport has in place, what they don’t have are travellers! If only I’d had a boarding pass, I really could have avoided the crowds and got my Christmas shopping done early, in the near-deserted Duty Free hall. Even with Terminals 3 and 4 currently closed, due to the decrease in air travel, I have never seen the airport so quiet.

However, given the chance, Heathrow is ready for more passengers; having lost £1.6bn in revenue during the first half of the year, that can’t come soon enough. As well as the visible safety measure in place, the airport uses innovative crowd control software to identify potential social distancing problems and quickly deal with them. These include AI software systems which uses the airport’s security cameras to count the number of people in the airport. The system detects potential crowd volumes in the terminal and signals an alert when certain densities are identified, prompting the Covid Marshalls to intervene in order to maintain social distancing.

Many of the safety measures implemented by Heathrow, in response to the pandemic, will likely remain in place for many years to come, according to Heathrow’s Airport Operations (Customer Services) Manager, Aaron Smythe, even long after Covid-19 has been eradicated.

Other than the increased safety instructions on display throughout Heathrow, the actual experience of using and passing through the airport – including check-in and and passport control – was reassuringly normal.

A united front…

Heathrow is working closely with airlines to deliver a completely safe environment for travellers. United Airlines is a great example of how airline and airport are collaborating to achieve this goal. From touchless checkin, via the United app, to self-boarding, United are putting traveller safety are the very core of the operations.

United Airlines are currently operating four flights daily from London Heathrow to Chicago, Washington, San Fransisco and Newark. Currently running at around 15% occupancy, United, like all airlines, are struggling. However, that hasn’t stopped them from implementing their own impressive Covid safety measures – both procedural and physical. There’s no more group boarding of flights; instead passengers enter the plane by row to maintain social distancing. Once on board, they’ll find that aircraft is as spotless as the airport.

United are deep cleaning every plane with a new electromgnetically charged chemical disinfectant spray. Applied by specialist cleaning technicians, affectionately reffed to as ‘Ghostbusters’ (because of their appearance), this spray drys within 3 minutes of application and lasts unto 72 hours. However, each plane receives this treatment before every flight. I witnessed this rigorous procedure on one of United’s new Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliners’, before it jetted off to San Fransisco… sadly without me on board.

As United’s Regional Safety Manager, Bill Dark, explained to me, innovative app technology and thorough cleaning procedures are only part of United Airline’s response to the pandemic:

“We’re constantly lobbying both the UK and US governments to improve airside testing. We’ve even established our own Screening Tests, conducting trials and sharing the results with the relevant authorities to prove its effectiveness in the hope that our actions may help lift the current travel restrictions.”

The safest place to be…

As I left the cleanliness and calm of Heathrow and ventured back out into the cold and rainy autumn afternoon, I was struck by how safe everything had felt inside the airport. No one had coughed. Everyone was adhering to Covid safety guidelines. The airport experience was reassuringly familiar.

It occurred to me that, if you can actually get on a flight, it’s probably the safest place to be right now!

How I wished my trip to Heathrow hadn’t ended with me climbing back into my car so soon. Sure, I was parked in then short stay, but this was ridiculous! I’d much rather have been back in the smart, comfortable environment of United’s new Dreamliner, heading stateside for a client face-to-face in San Fransisco. Ahh, the good old days.

Oh well, at least it wouldn’t take me long to get home. There was still no traffic.

Thank you to Sam Gillespie, United Airlines Account Manager, for inviting me behind the scenes.

If you are a frequent business traveller, you may be exempt from the current quarantine restrictions. Be sure to check out our TRAVELLER TOOLKIT for guidance and the latest travel information.

To help you navigate the changes of business travel, we’ve created the brand-new Traveller Toolkit. This invaluable online resource is packed full of easy-to-use guides and checklists for every stage of every journey. We detail exactly what you need to know and do before, during and after your trip.

You’ll also find innovative and interactive virtual trips, which walk you through each step of  being at the airport, on the train and in the hotel. You can even check the travel restrictions and health status of your destination with our comprehensive COVID-19 Country Tracker, updated five times daily to ensure you have the very latest information to help keep you and your travellers safe.

Travel is changing. But with common sense and a good TMC behind you, travellers should have the confidence to once again take to the skies. It’ll soon be business as (un)usual.