Efforts to employ social distancing at airports will not work because each large aircraft would require a kilometre long queue just to board, the boss of Heathrow has warned.

There simply was not enough space at major international airports for social distancing to provide a solution to safe travel, the airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said.

Writing in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, Holland-Kaye called on prime minister Boris Johnson to agree with other world leaders a “common international standard” – including health checks on departure – that would allow passengers to travel once Covid-19 infection rates dropped.

Holland-Kaye urged Johnson to introduce the agreed standard within a month to allow airports to begin functioning again by the summer.

Unless the aviation sector is up and running “in the next three to five months” then “not only will we see massive job losses in our sector, we will see job losses in many other sectors that depend on us as well,” he warned.

Holland-Kaye warned: “Forget social distancing – it won’t work in aviation or any other form of public transport, and the problem is not the plane, it is the lack of space in the airport. Just one jumbo jet would require a queue a kilometre long.”

He added that “Heathrow is the biggest single-site employer in the country” and warned that thousands of jobs were now at stake.

Jobs in other sectors that rely on air travel, including tourism, were also in jeopardy unless airports can begin operating safely, said Mr Holland-Kaye.

He described aviation as “the cornerstone of the economy” and claimed that 40% of UK annual exports are transported on passenger flights from Heathrow.

“If those planes aren’t flying, UK factories can’t get the parts they need and nor can they get their finished goods to market,” he said.

The only way to re-open borders and begin international air travel was “to get the infection rate under control in this country and in others” which he said could take two to four months.

Once that is achieved then “a common international standard for health in travel” was needed that would keep the risk of infection during the journey “very low”.

The new standard for travel could include a mandatory health check at the airport entrance, the compulsory wearing of surgical masks and “fantastic levels of hygiene in the airport”.

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