COVID-19 Sector Updates: Aviation with Nigel Milton, Director of Communications, Heathrow Airport

During a WIG webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation sector, you posed some of your questions to Nigel Milton, Director of Communications at Heathrow Airport.

Answering in written form, Nigel has shared his insight into the recovery of the industry, the safety measures being adopted at airports, and the importance of cooperation with key players both internationally and across the sectors.

Heathrow Airport

What impact does coronavirus have on the need for a third runway? Does the global situation negate/delay the need for it?

Coronavirus is a serious challenge for the UK and a real threat to the economy. We are doing everything we can to support our airlines and keep Britain’s vital trading links open throughout this very serious situation, but the impact on UK plc is likely to be significant. This is a fast-moving situation, but whilst we focus our efforts on responding and protecting our passengers and people, our expansion plans will inevitably be delayed as we also await further information on the judicial review appeals process.

Demand for air travel will eventually return and the private investment the project would bring would be a welcome boost to the UK economy.

What impact does COVID-19 have on Heathrow's financial resilience? Are you expecting a need for government funding support?

The spread of COVID-19 is having a tragic human cost and significant effects across the global aviation industry. Prudent management and investment in the airport over the past decade put Heathrow in a strong financial position. We’ve taken steps to reduce our cost base and reorganise our operation which will help us keep Britain’s hub airport operating and protect vital supply lines throughout this crisis.

We’re not expecting the need for direct government funding support at the moment, but we are asking for their help with extending furlough and reducing some of our fixed costs like business rates.

Impact on the industry and recovery

What speed/shape recovery do you expect for the industry once travel can resume - a fast recovery due to lots of pent-up demand, or a slow recovery?

We’re working on a number of scenarios but most of our work so far suggests that it will be a slow recovery for the aviation industry. At the moment there’s still too many variables to accurately forecast but what is clear is that unless the industry can develop a consistent international standard to health screening, we will struggle to meet the evolving expectations of passengers and to provide the confidence they need to get travelling again.

Do you see the demand for flying returning to pre-COVID-19 levels in the near future or will it be a long-term recovery and sustained reduced demand?

We think it’s going to be a long, slow, recovery process for the aviation industry and that certainly in the short-medium term there will be reduced demand. It’s clear that the post-COVID world is going to be very different and we will see a new “normal”.

The single biggest thing we can do to speed up this recovery is to quickly get an agreed international standard for health screening so that we can give passengers the reassurance they need to get travelling again, and confidence to governments around the world to open their borders once more.

Given how long this is likely to continue, with some people being classed vulnerable who are most likely to travel, what does the airline need to be able to bounce back?

The single biggest thing we can do to speed up this recovery is to quickly get an agreed international standard for health screening so that we can give passengers the reassurance they need to get travelling again, and confidence to governments to open their borders once more. A wide range of health screening measures have been applied at airports across the world, creating confusion for passengers and question marks over what works and what doesn’t. If we can solve this problem, it will go a long way towards the industry bouncing back.

How do you anticipate airlines and airports will bounce background post COVID-19? Do you expect passengers to bear the costs?

Slowly. Both supply and demand will have been affected by this crisis due to the large-scale wider economic impacts. We can expect airports and airlines to have to do things differently in order meet changing passenger and public expectations of the industry, and not just those on health screening.

One proposal that’s been flouted in recent weeks by some has been to introduce social distancing on aircraft through a reduction in load factors. Potential measures such as this, and other proposals and consequences like a reduction in the number of airlines and flights competing against each other, and the introduction of health screening requirements are all things that could see prices go up for passengers.

Once travel has resumed, how long do you expect until you see normal passenger numbers again?

We’re working through a number of scenarios but even in the best case – we will not see passenger numbers return to pre-COVID levels for quite some time. This crisis is unparalleled in terms of the speed and scope of its impact. Since January, we’ve seen our “worst case” scenario become our “best case” in a matter of weeks so it’s still too early to call.

Noting the huge uptick in cargo during the pandemic, do you see the role of dedicated freight (as opposed to belly-hold) at the airport changing in the future?

In the short term, maybe. In the medium to longer term, we expect the combination of belly-hold cargo and passengers to again account for the majority of our flights. Once slots become constrained at Heathrow again you can expect airlines to prioritise the use of slots for more profitable passenger/cargo flights over cargo-only.

How much passenger traffic is there for business and do you think new working arrangements will become permanent and reduce business travel?

Business trips account for 25-30% of our normal annual passengers and it is very easy to see that in the short-term these numbers will reduce. While video conferencing and agile working have taken off during this crisis – as evidenced by the issues with my presentation, there’s still no substitute for in-person interactions.

There’s been a lot of coverage in recent weeks about people missing personal connections and interactions, and the negative mental health side-effects. Combine that with the different cultural approaches to doing business around the world, with many relying on personal interactions, and the new distant trading partners the UK will have post-Brexit and personally I think it’s easy to see business travel returning in the medium to long term.

Are you seeing any opportunities coming out of the Covid-19 crisis?

Yes. Any great period of crisis inevitably acts as a catalyst for change and there’s always opportunity in change. It’s no different for airports and aviation currently.

At Heathrow we’ve been operating at 98% capacity for over a decade which has made it very difficult to enact big changes while maintaining the operation. We’re looking at a whole host of different ways of doing things at the airport and starting to frame our thinking. For example, there’s real opportunities to expedite new technologies around security and border processing to make a more efficient, and even safer, passenger experience.

Health and safety measures

What are your views on an “immunity passport” for those who have recovered from the virus and is there international collaboration to standardise this?

There’s not necessarily a need for an “immunity passport” but we are already working with the aviation industry and regulators both here and in other countries to establish the need for a common standard, and what that might involve.

These could include enhanced cleaning regimes, health passports, health screening at entry points or development of technology that will reduce person to person contact throughout the passenger’s journey.

Once more people begin to start flying again, how will you communicate further delays to passengers due weather etc. to prevent people coming to the airports to avoid overcrowding and breaching social distancing measures put in place?

We already look to stop people from coming to the airport today during times of disruption. In fact, it’s something we have done for a number of years via media and social media channels in times of crisis to prevent overcrowding of terminals and to ensure delayed passengers are not stuck at the airport unnecessarily.

The social distancing issue is a greater challenge. We’ve already got posters, digital signage, and floor markers out in terminals which is working now with reduced passengers. How we maintain this with increased passenger loads is something we are still working through but no doubt digital channels will be crucial to this.

What are the revised security methods? Are officers still carrying out physical searches? Have any DfT regulations been relaxed?

The same strict security regulations remain in place at the airport but we have implemented different ways of carrying out physical searches to reduce interpersonal contact. We’ve also installed Perspex screens on security lanes – similar to those you’re now seeing at supermarkets – as well as provided colleagues with surgical face masks to wear if they choose.

Should clean air systems be introduced on airframes to ensure airborne pathogens are not around for prolonged periods?

Aircraft already have High-Efficiency Particle Filters (True HEPA) in place so it’s a lot cleaner than you might anticipate. Our thinking at the moment is that if airports and airlines, globally, can get the pre-flight measures right then there’s probably no need for upgraded actions on-board.

Are you expecting to transition to a “no touch” airport?

We’re looking at a wide range of ideas and options around future health screening. The key thing is that there needs to be a common international standard. The idea of a “no touch” airport certainly has merit but whether it is a feasible idea in terms of technology, cost, medical effectiveness and practical implementation world-wide requires further consideration.

Which measures that have been currently implemented at airports because of the outbreak do you see as remaining permanent?

Since the outbreak we’ve implemented new arrivals procedures for aircraft with Public Health England, installed over 600 hand sanitiser dispensers, and put in place social distancing arrangements across our terminals. We expect most of these will become permanent.

How are you working to understand passenger sentiment and confidence and what will make them feel happy to fly again?

We have our own passenger and insights team who utilise a variety of data sources, including passenger surveys and our own online research group - “Horizon”, who are looking at it. We’re also looking into this with industry bodies like the AOA, ACI and IATA as the challenge of restoring passenger confidence is going to be one that if we cannot solve collectively, then the aviation industry will not recover.

What would be the minimal passenger density (%) in a socially distanced flight/journey to remain profitable in your estimation?

Airlines often run on small margins and normally at Heathrow you see an average load factor of 80%. It’s difficult to tell what minimum passenger density would be required but it’s clear that if airlines combine passenger type demand at a hub with cargo, they stand more chance of operating a viable route. Where cargo is involved, the passenger density required for flight viability is likely to be lower than that of a purely leisure short-haul route.

Is it correct that passengers are arriving in the UK without being checked in any way and why is that?

We’ve put in place all of the measures that PHE have advised, based on medically driven information, are required. Many of these measures aren’t widely visible to passengers. We know though that in many other countries around the world there are very visible checks in place, and this is leading to growing concern amongst UK residents and passengers. We’re asking Government to help us in leading the charge for an agreed international standard.

Cooperation with other key players

What kind of influence does Heathrow Airport have on how airlines manage the COVID-19 crisis and the mitigations they are implementing?

While we can’t influence what airlines are doing at other airports they’re departing from, we can manage the way in which their passengers and crew travel through Heathrow.

Our role though largely centres around ensuring the measures Public Health England advise are implemented at the airport and that we facilitate the work that they do here. Since the crisis began, we’ve helped PHE by providing a dedicated, isolated, terminal pier for their use with suspected cases and ensured new response and reporting procedures are in place across the airport.

Do you see countries and key airports (handling certain volumes) adopting agreed consistent measures?

Yes. I don’t see a successful future for the aviation industry unless more consistent measures are developed for health screening and protection.

Have you had much discussion with, for example, the rail industry about increasing the safety/minimising the risk of journeys to/from the airport?

It’s something we’re having to do as members of the rail industry ourselves with the Heathrow Express. Social distancing on carriages, a reduced timetable, and a reduced number of colleagues operating the services are all measures that have put in place during this crisis. It is not just the rail industry though. We’re also having to look at things like taxis and “kiss and fly” pick-ups and drop-offs. On the latter, we’ve been proactive with our passenger communications asking people to only pick up those people that live with them, in line with Government self-isolation advice.


WIG members can watch Nigel's presentation, read our report on the webinar, and watch other webinar recordings in our resource library.


  • Nigel Milton

    Director of Communications, Heathrow Airport

    Nigel leads Heathrow Airports Ltd’s Public Affairs and Community Relations teams. His responsibilities include managing Heathrow’s relations with politicians, government officials, business groups and the community around Heathrow. He represents Heathrow on a wide range of trade associations and lobbying groups. Nigel joined Heathrow from Virgin Atlantic in March 2010 where he had spent six years in the External Affairs department. Prior to this Nigel worked for the Department for Transport (DfT) where he had been Assistant Director for International Aviation since October 2000. Prior to this post, Nigel was Private Secretary to the UK Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Transport, John Prescott, between 1998 and 2000. Nigel has a law degree from Oxford University and a Masters degree in Transport Planning and Management from the University of Westminster.