Face coverings provide a necessary alternative to social distancing in the absence to a medical solution to the coronavirus pandemic, airport executives said during a FlightGlobal-hosted webinar today.

Speaking during a wide-ranging webinar, organised by FlightGlobal in association with Collins Aerospace, on the challenges facing airports in the wake of the pandemic, Heathrow airport’s chief solutions officer Chris Garton said masks are helping to mitigate risks where social distancing is not possible. 

”We learnt a lot from our colleagues in Hong Kong,” he states. “They have successfully restarted both aviation and the metro services with almost no infection within the city and they are using – something they have done before for SARS and MERS – face coverings. So in the UK we have adopted face covering.”

He points to the impracticalities of social distancing across all aspects of an airport. “A queue for an A380 at two metres apart is a kilometre queue. So it’s not going to be possible within airport infrastructure to be able to host the same volumes of passengers, and typically we might be looking at only 40% of today’s capability being possible if we have to social distance,” Garton says.

“Masks are a well-utilised and proven alternative to social distancing – it’s the basis of control that most aircraft are going to use. We practice social distancing where we can, but we recognise it’s not always possible to maintain social distancing – so the face covering acts as mitigation to any residual risk. 

”That will remain in place until more point-of-care testing comes through or a potential vaccine or cure in the future.”

Another panellist, ACI World deputy director general of programmes and services Antoine Rostworowski, stressed the requirement for data-based decision making and for measures implemented at airports to only be in place for the period they are needed.

”We have seen in the past some situations on the security side where some measures were deployed, the situation changes, but the measures remain at airports. We have to avoid that.”

He adds that measures deployed at the airport should also be aligned with those in the city it serves. ”You wouldn’t want everyone crammed up in a shuttle on a bus or train going downtown to the airport, and then having to distance… at the airport.

“So there has to be a constant review of these different stages – and hopefully measures don’t stay the same.”

Garton adds: ”We hope a vaccine will be found, and hopefully a cure, and clearly if this becomes another of the known diseases which has a cure, then none of the controls we are talking about today – masks and so on – will be relevant. So we have to think about the time-bound nature of some of these controls, on the assumption of progress.”

“The Post-Coronavirus Airport: Innovating for the New Normal” will be available to listen to on-demand at flightglobal.com/webinars